James have always been a slightly awkward, lacking the arch and clever-clever fronting that’s frequently typical of the British guitar group. Their affinity for anthems that suit the drunken end of a night of indie clubbing and their decidedly unstylish flower t-shirts are proof that they were never hip. Following their 1992 U.S. breakthrough album Laid, the band returned to the studio with Brian Eno to record the largely improvised Wah Wah, which, while densely atmospheric, perhaps inevitably never capitalized on their mainstream success. When they released Whiplash to mixed reviews in 1997, the meteoric rise of Coldplay — a group who would build on their blueprint — was only just around the corner.
James in 2014, therefore, are in something of a musical no-man’s land, neither poised for the ATP-style nostalgia circuit nor really cashing in on the chart hits they had back in the day. Chief songwriter Tim Booth also finds himself at a crossroads — in recent interviews he’s spoken movingly of the death of his mother from cancer. Yet despite lyrics of death and loss, La Petite Mort is far from a somber record. After all, naming your album after a euphemism for an orgasm hardly suggests a group lacking in thrust and vim.
That much is clear from the outset, with an opening brace of songs that veer on the preposterous. James was always a band who made carefree exuberant pop songs on one hand and introspective, deeply personal ballads on the other. Therefore the big, rolling piano of “Walk Like You” has a pomposity that comes as quite a shock — it has the sort of overwrought emotional heft you might ordinarily find in a West End musical. But perhaps it fits the subject matter, as Booth’s lyrics addresses the tortured relationship between every parent and child working itself into a kind of alternative rock take on Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” that ends with a colossal musical and emotional breakdown.
There’s a lot of sex on this album, just as there always is with James. It’s as if seeing death first hand has made Booth even more libidinous than he was before — on “Frozen Britain,” he implores a girl called Emily to dance with him, “lift up your dress” and “make a boy out of me” over panting drums. “Curse Curs” is a bizarre Euro-trance stomper in which Booth narrates a stay in a hotel, a couple having sex in the room next door and football in the telly. “Pour me more tequila!” he sings with gusto, “Praise the Lord and kiss me on the mouth!” On “Gone Baby Gone” Booth muses on relationship stability versus liberated singledom and heartache, in “Bitter Virtue” he sings that “I’d rather live in sin” than deny the temptations of lust.
While this idiosyncrasy in music and lyric shows James still very much exist in their own world, there are parallels here with other groups who, like them, have always existed in the cult fringes of the British guitar mainstream. “Moving On” has the kind of eyes-to-the-horizon chug perfected by British Sea Power in recent years, and has a chorus where Booth sounds remarkably similar to the Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield in full flow. Interrogation makes for an epic, swirling creature of cello, though less successful is the tinkling, middle-aged indie ballad “All in My Mind,” which sounds like Keane.
As someone who’s now a serious yoga practitioner living in California, Booth has no issues with heart-on-sleeve sincerity, and not everyone will be able to stomach some of the rather hippy-clappy lyricism here — “let’s inspire/ let’s inflame/ let’s make art from our pain”.
Yet this is also what gives La Petite Mort its unusual charm, a directness that one rarely hears in an age of irony and detachment on one hand, the myopic whining of stadium filler indie from Elbow and Coldplay on the other. It’s especially noticeable on the album’s closing track, “All I’m Saying,” a poignant address to Booth’s late mother, her “wise half smile” and their difficult relationship. Never funereal, it builds and builds with strings and a galloping rhythm until the music drops, leaving Booth to sing “I’m missing you/ and all the worlds you opened up to view/ I love you/ see you next time”.
In a time when most of James’s onetime peers — Echo & the Bunnymen, the Pixies, their old rival Morrissey — are just offering “will-this-do?” retreads and nostalgia, James’s willingness to push the boat out is to be commended. Whether La Petite Mort is able to bring James to a new audience beyond their core fanbase remains to be seen.