La Petite Mort is James’ 13th studio album. For a band that’s been dismissed by the media so many times, it’s a miracle that they’re still here. Even more so when you listen to La Petite Mort and it has all that fire still burning in its belly that characterised their very earliest work. And this time the flames have reached your face and are meeting you head on.
There’s hardly a week goes by without a band reforming for a big payday denied them in their pomp with a few big gigs, a tour and then some half-arsed attempt at recreating former glories by repeating the formula that made them popular in the first place but without the vigour and excitement that increasing years has drained from them.
One of the first big reformations was James back in 2007 and as a band that never quite fitted in to any of the scenes they were lumped in with over the years, they produced their best album with 2008’s Hey Ma. Since then they’ve been relatively quiet in terms of recorded output save for 2010’s mini-albums The Night Before and The Morning After, which didn’t quite scale the heights of their predecessor, primarily because James’ modus operandi of getting in a room and jamming and not leaving until they had songs had been replaced by an internet-driven process driven more by geographical necessity than anything else.
La Petite Mort thankfully sees a return to the tried and trusted formula, jammed in a series of sessions in Scotland, Manchester, Athens and Portugal over the past two years and then recorded with Killers producer Max Dingel in London. Similar to the impact Eno had on James’ recorded work in the Laid / Wah Wah period, Dingel pulls off the difficult trick of transferring that unique James energy live into a distilled recorded output without diluting the power and vitality that is at the heart of one of possibly their best work over the thirty years they’ve been a band.
Immediately you’re struck by how strident the record is. The beautiful keyboard driven opening to Walk Like You sets the tone for the rest of the piece. There’s been a lot written about how this album is about death, but this song seems to talk about youth rebelling against parentage imposing its own beliefs on them – “we will not walk like you, talk like you”. It weighs in at over seven minutes, although it doesn’t feel like it by the time you get to the end. As with many great songs, there’s more ideas in the song than other bands fit into an album. It breaks down half way through and emerges as almost another song, espousing the positivity of “let’s inspire, let’s inflame, create art from our pain, find a love that’s as deep as it’s holy.”
Next up is Curse Curse and it’s already caused controversy amongst die-hard fans. Whilst it’s shamelessly electro in its outlook, attacking your ears with a mélange of pads and keys, it’s simply a fantastic pop song. The keys mean there’s a lot more Mark Hunter in this record than previous ones, pushed up to the fore in the mix. Lyrically, it’s intriguing, fitting “I turn the TV up, Copa Del Rey, Messi shoots and scores, a hundred thousand came” into a song as an analogy for the couple in the next hotel room going at it hammer and tongs is no mean achievement, nor can you imagine Tim Booth necking shots of tequila.
Moving On is the big single from the album and rightly so. Even from its first live appearance, it stood out as the lead track. It effortlessly pushes its way into the canon of James anthems, but with a twist. Whilst there’s been some pretty dark subject matter in many of James’ best-known moments, none are as dark as the death of Tim’s mother. It’s turned round into positivity based on the belief that they’ll meet again somewhere in the future and that life should be celebrated not mourned with the refrain of “leave a little light on”.
Gone Baby Gone is testament to the new found hardness to James’s sound. A deep grumbling bassline starts the song and has centre stage over the first verse and Tim joins in over the top, lamenting the end of a long relationship before keys and drums take over the simple chorus of “gone baby gone baby gone”. The rest of the song careers gloriously from morse-code style keys, fierce guitar licks and Tim singing, almost oblivious to the chaos around him, about desire, loss and an indifference to love and its complications “love love love love love love, blah blah blah blah blah”.
Next up is the first focus track Frozen Britain. As a standalone track, it took a bit of warming to but now it’s a glorious celebration of love found from the depths of despair. It continues with references to death and birth, exaulting the Emily of the chorus to come to bed and make a boy out of the protagonist. It simultaneously manages to sound like a direct descendent of the almost casual almost throwaway energy of Laid whilst expressing the deep joy of love of Just Like Fred Astaire. No mean feat.
The album takes a step back in pace, but not intensity, for Interrogation. It starts with an almost wistful trumpet call before Tim explores the concept of judging and damning others by standards that he doesn’t always apply to himself – “all I judge, I have become, interrogation of my own” – in a similar vein to the “when I point the finger, three pointing back” of Down To The Sea. The production draws the best out of the song, it feels like there’s no instrument there for the sake of it – Dave’s drums underpin the whole thing whilst keys and guitar and the occasional trumpet flourish whilst Tim plummets the depths of self-evaluation – “verdict, we find the accused guilty”.
Next up is Bitter Virtue and it’s the most difficult to evaluate. It’s another song of self-assessment – “living, so close to loving, I is the problem, over solution joining circles”. It’s very simple in execution, almost in a loop in the verses, before the plaintive chorus of “a bitter virtue, I’d rather live in sin, there’s pleasure in your suffering” and some subtle backing vocals.
All In The Mind is opened and driven along by a beautiful ascending piano line that’s on the verge of going off-key. The song comes back to this for the verses. It’s a simple song, but the execution of it is stunning, crisp, clear, uncluttered, allowing the focus on Tim’s vocal including fifteen seconds of holding one note. Again, it focuses on mortality, but with the obliquely positive spin on it that courses through this whole record.
A dreamy undulating keys and piano combination introduces the short but snappy Quicken The Dead and its rejoicing of “dodging the bullet”, but acknowledging in the chorus “we’re already dead”.
The closer is a show-stopper. All I’m Saying is about the untimely death of Tim’s mentor Gabrielle Roth and him being unable to say goodbye – “never said I love you, hope you knew”. It’s a intensely personal song, and whilst not many of us could claim to have Tim Booth’s outlook on life, it addresses those feelings of regret at loss that only the most cold-hearted could deny.
Of course, this doom and regret gets turned round by the music, building slowly at first before exploding into a crescendo of instruments in the way the finest James moments do.
Listening back to the album, there’s a few key points to note.
Firstly the production fills me with a series of contradictory thoughts – it’s managed to encapsulate everything about James and distil it into a record that probably most accurately reflects the band.
However, it accentuates those edges that distinguish James from their contemporaries, past and present, protruding to a point where it doesn’t take away any of the personality and unique character of the band.
When Eno did this, it occasionally allowed the band to drift, but this is vehemently focused and there’s not a note on the album that’s superfluous. It allows Mark to the fore and the rest of the band to breathe. It’s both a big production and a minimal one at the same time. That won’t make sense until you hear it.
This allows Tim to deliver probably his finest vocal performance over the course of an album. Perhaps it’s the depth of emotion that runs through every song and the subject matter, but he’s never sounded more purposeful. He’s feeling every single word and, by the end, so is the listener.
So where does it sit in James’ canon of work? It’s too early in its life to say whether it’s their best album compared to albums I’ve grown up with, but it’ll be on that ever-rotating list with Strip-Mine, Laid and Hey Ma.
La Petite Mort pour toujours.
La Petite Mort is out on Monday June 2nd on CD, 180g double vinyl with embossed sleeve and download and with a series of bundles available from James' web store.
James official website can be found here, where you can download a free version of Interrogation from the album and find details of summer festival shows and a November arena tour. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Larry and Dave - are also on Twitter.
Even The Stars also runs the James fan site One Of The Three which is also on Facebook.
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