Album Review: James Engages In Brilliantly Blunt Protest On Living In Extraordinary Times
Living In Extraordinary Times
James makes a protest album that outdoes their peers in the socio-commentary department and shows us how engaging non-guitar centric rock music should sound.
“This crack head’s tiny fingers/Accusing you of what he’ll do/White fascists in the White House/More beetroot in your Russian stew” sings Tim Booth on Living In Extraordinary Times’ opening track “Hank.” With that we know that he’s up to being even more blunt than he usually is with these lyrics, and James are primed to delivery worthy commentary, both lyrically and musically.
Booth’s lyrics are notorious for being nakedly direct. Everyone remembers the line “She only comes when she’s on top” from “Laid”, the title track off of James’ 1993 album of the same name. The song still receives regular airplay on SiriusXm’s Lithium channel and is featured on every American FM rock radio stations’ “90s Throwback Weekends.” Sadly, that’s pretty much all anyone remembers, or knows, about one of Manchester’s longest lived rock bands, at least on this side of the pond. This is a shame, especially since after a lengthy hiatus the band has released some of the best modern alt-rock albums of the past decade. Moving steadily away from their roots (acoustic guitar, bass, and drums – with some electric guitar mixed in) on each new album, but never abandoning it completely, James has expanded their sound to incorporate horns, synths, electronic beats, and strings, but haven’t lost their signature integrity along with their rock sound. That’s a hard feat to pull off these days. Muse has experimented with going more electronic over the course of their career, to mixed success, and continue to be at their best when Matt Bellamy is wailing away on the guitar. James, perhaps because they never really had a “guitar hero” in their band, have made an easier, and more effective, transition to an electronically derived and integrated sound. Nevertheless, they remain grounded in the same melodies and song structures that powered their early albums, including LAID and their even more brilliant eponymous 1990 release, James.
Booth’s aforementioned bluntness on James took an early political and religio-centric stance on “Government Walls,” and “God Only Knows”, so its dramatic resurgence on Living In Extraordinary times isn’t a surprise. “Heads” addresses economic inequality in America with relevant snark, comparing the rampant devouring of natural resources by rich elites as akin to feeding at a buffet. Wrapped in a near frenetic beat interspersed with synth driven crescendos, thick bass guitar lines, and ominous horns, “Heads” is one of the early highlights on the album where it all comes together for the band.
Less adventurous and progressive, musically that is, is “Many Faces.” A song that leads with more traditional (for James) acoustic guitar riffs, nevertheless (and once again) bluntly addresses the perceived differences that is all too commonly, and falsely, seen between people of different races, skin colors, and religious beliefs. Booth engages in some humor with the lines “My brother’s mad at me…My God, what’s his name?/He says your God is just calamari.” The chorus of “There’s only one/human race/Many faces/Everybody belongs here” again would sound almost trite, this time even from the mouth of Eddie Vedder, but from Booth it sounds like an excerpt from a sutra. He even repeats it like a divine chant throughout the ending third of the song, as if he can chant it into actuality, giving way slowly to a chorus of voices singing the lines to the sound of organs. It’s the spiritual, as well as socially conscious, height of the album that feels more true and honest than just about any music written or recorded in this vein in over a decade.
James, and Booth (with his lyrics), resurrects the hope and the will to fight for a better world with the very next track, “Extraordinary Times.” Opening with an echoing drum track, the clarion call of a rapidly strummed electric guitar, and breaking into the lyric with “Fuck you/I want to fuck you/Until we break through/Into other dimensions/Where we’re all one/ Before the Big Bang/Blew” all the mauldin moping that weighted down the previous track is dispelled with a fury. “Living In Extraordinary Times” is this album’s moment where you do that double take over the opening lyrics, much like you did the first time you heard “Laid.” Like many times on this album though, “Extraordinary Times” becomes the type of song that only a band like James can deliver.
On the album’s hardest track, “Picture of This Place” James reveals a hitherto unrecognized penchant for the kind of hard alt-rock that you’d expect from later day Smashing Pumpkins. Plenty of distortion and overlaid guitar riffs thread the song throughout with a heaviness that fits Booth’s lyrics about “mystical” “one way trips” and being “unfaithful to the culture that I’m in.” It’s also one of the few places on the album where Booth engages in lyricism instead of straightforward lyrical bluntness. It’s a fascinating left turn that James should explore further.
Even though the album is packed with powerful tracks that figure, or pre-figure, grand gestures and (once again) glaringly blunt declarations, it never devolves into grandiosity or, worse yet, pretension. There is only one fleeting moment on the album where grandiloquence is flirted with. “Better Than That” is rescued from allowing the goodwill and graciousness built up, and effectively communicated, on the album from crashing down by being one of the album’s most straightforwardly interesting rock songs. It’s also the most uplifting rock song on the album, all of which absolves James, and especially Booth, of faltering, albeit barely. It’s great to hear that James can hard rock it out still though, regardless of the lyrics.
Barring that one almost misstep, Living In Extraordinary Times is one of those career defining albums that rarely come along these days, especially for a rock band given to this kind of statement. The album dealing with the big subjects, ones we often don’t want, or sometimes can no longer confront with the vigor we need to. James stares them down with a confidence and straightforwardness that belies that which is required of any rock band, but is most welcome, and appreciated.