Living In Extraordinary Times is James' fifteenth studio album, their follow-up to 2016's Girl At The End Of The World which reached number 2 in the UK. Whilst retaining moments of intimate poignancy, like the recent single Coming Home Pt 2, it also sees the band entering new sonic territory with the input of producers Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles, and Tim Booth taking a long hard look at the state of the world, particularly his home in America, and throwing lyrical rocks at the political mess we're in across the globe, but also offering some advice as how to shield yourself from the chaos.
The album opens with Hank and Tim Booth doesn't pull any punches in this song with his assessment of the incumbent US president Donald Trump in lyrics laced with references to his time in power such as "white Fascists in the White House, more beetroot in your Russian stew" and "NRA high fives Orlando, Sandy Hook and Columbine" and the Jim Crow rules of racial segregation and shoot on sight policies of police in some US states that have led to the deaths of countless young black people. These are his most direct lyrics since he took on Thatcher nearly thirty years ago on the likes of Promised Land and Government Walls. Tellingly, despite the intervening years, it's only the likes of Cabbage and The Blinders, on the fringes, that are in line carrying the flag for direct political insight in their songs as the mainstream gets watered down.
Musically the band set their stall out right at the start too. Living In Extraordinary Times takes the core James sound that has stood them so well over the years, and around it they've experimented in new directions with each album, and injects all kinds of percussive and drum wizardry into the mix. The first five seconds set the stall for much of what to come, before Tim has uttered a word, punching, kicking drums high in the mix, tribal in their nature. In many ways it feels like they've brought the darting, unpredictable percussion of their debut Stutter right up to date with the assistance of Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles, who the band have credited for them adopting a different approach to this record.
The album is laden with references to those extraordinary times in which we're living. Heads is ostensibly about the state of the union in the States - "Don't believe in the white American dream" - and the way "the poor vote in the rich to hammer nails in their feet" whilst "history's rich get to keep whatever they steal", yet the sentiments on display could apply to many places in the world - the kiss-off line "we bought into this crap that we can't take back" could equally apply to the political chaos enveloping the nation at home as the Brexit bomb edges ever closer. It's delivered against a maelstrom of tribal drums that sounds very little like anything James have done before.
Those themes permeate out into other songs too, the title track talks of "bodies pile up face down on the beach" as refugee crises show no sign of abating and "our Eden's overgrown with vines and weeds", Leviathan speaks of finding love "before they drop the bomb" and the album's centre-piece Many Faces is a direct response to the growing xenophobia and racism that's becoming emboldened across much of the world.
It's not all negative though. Many Faces is a glorious rebuttal of the divisions that those who seek to build walls between nations, races and religions, opening with the line "there's only love that's strong enough to rescue us from self-destruct" and concluding with a choral repetition of the "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" that fans hearing the song for the first time on their preview took over and sang back to the band. It's a simple statement, written down on its own, but one that seeks to unite. As the layered choral arrangements of the album version (we'd recommend seeking this out rather than the radio edit) kick in at the end, the song diverts off into something more spiritual than James have produced in a long time.
Hank celebrates the jesters like Stephen Colbert on The Late Show who use comedy to emphasise the ridiculousness of some of Trump's actions. The glorious uplifting Leviathan, for us the finest moment on the record, urges people not to deny love - "fucking love, fucking and love, make sure you get enough" before that bomb drops and "you blow my mind when we come together, a rent in time takes two of us to breach" whilst the title track offers the simple solution "how to ignore this, live in the moment."
Those that might fear that the album is Booth declaring himself a front-runner and opponent of Trump in the next presidential elections will be delighted to hear that the political undertones don't run through most of the rest of the record so those aggrieved at the terrible thought of musicians daring to have an opinion on the extraordinary troubles the world is facing can rest easy with large sections of the album.
The glorious Coming Home Part 2, a song revisited from the Girl At The End Of The World sessions where they felt that they hadn't quite nailed it despite the intervention of their old friend Brian Eno, is written about the distance and separation of father and son as Tim lives in the US but spends all his time with James across the Atlantic. "I missed your seventh birthday, last kiss five thousand miles away, facetime on Father's Day, five thousand miles away" is the guilt-ridden opening line and the theme that continues throughout. Like so much of James' most immediate and anthemic work, it turns the darkness of the verses into a glorious chorus with the uplifting declaration "I'll be coming home, I'll be coming home... I wanna hold your hand across this dark" echoing similar sentiments expressed in Upside on Hey Ma. Musically you can sense the impact of Andrew and Giles in the detail, the hand claps and the choral backing vocals in the breakdown, which keeps things relatively uncluttered and fussy and allows the song to shine through. It's something that keeps Many Faces in check later on in the record.
James have often shied away from unabashed love songs, but Leviathan is something completely different, it's about that moment when you let go of your senses and immerse yourself in love, knowing you're taking the most almighty of risks exposing yourself - "take my hand, 1, 2, 3, we will jump together through the skylight on the sea, become one with me, found a gap between the folds, where I will wait for you, love, with our bruised love, love that's weathered, has a shape beyond a new love" that so captures the moment we couldn't cut the quote of the first verse that's set to a deep dancing keyboard sound before the drums arrive to build the song to the exultant explosion into the chorus's "you blow my mind when we come together.... you blow my mind into the whatever" which mixes ecstasy with the uncertainty that doesn't seem to matter at that moment. Once again, the production feels very light touch, until you listen closer and the details come out - there's very little traditional trumpet on the record, for example, but that's never been Andy's style of playing and when you delve further in, you hear his input.
Back in 1999 when Millionaires was released, Stuart Maconie talked of James' mastery of the slower tempo songs, something that often got overlooked in favour of the anthems, and Living In Extraordinary Times possesses two examples of this. How Hard The Day is a man sat picking over the bones of his life, looking for a solution without really being able to, declaring in the opening line "write me a prescription, keep the lonelies at bay, how much of this friction will it take to inflame, I don't need a doctor to diagnose pain." A repetitive single drum beat throughout the first half of the song adds pathos to the song, its refusal to veer off its path making the song feel even more claustrophobic and impactful as it progresses. The second Hope To Sleep has a long fade-in and its sparse arrangement, again using the drums to similar impact. Lyrically it observes a relationship that's on the verge of falling apart at the seams from a woman's viewpoint who's desperately trying to rescue things by carrying the weight of her troubles with her, seemingly in vain, looking to "love him where he cracked, so he couldn't love her back."
Extraordinary Times is ushered in by dramatic drumming patterns of the like you won’t have heard on a James record before Tim declares “fuck you” with snarling intent, before following it with “I wanna fuck you till we break through into other dimensions” and the song delves into the troubles of modern life, living up to high expectations often self-imposed and escapism from the reality of the mess the world is in. From a songwriting perspective it’s interesting to note that the song appears to have evolved from or acquired parts of Overdose, a song that they previewed last year, and like so much of James’ most exciting work it feels like it’s grown organically from small seeds.
Picture Of This Place has a similar feel to it, a six-minute journey with enough ideas in it for about four other songs, but with a soaring euphoric chorus that bursts free like an unstoppable force from the tension that builds in the verses. It’s the song on the album where Mark’s growing influence in the songwriting process is most evident, the space allowed by the production meaning the listener can hear so much of the detail and continue to hear new sounds on each play whilst Tim’s voice explores new dynamics in the verse before exalting “desire, aim higher” in the chorus.
Better Than That, the album’s lead single, is probably the album’s most traditional James moment, although the production, particularly in the echo effects on Tim’s voice in the first verse and the scrurrying urgent percussion, means it’s far from just trying to recreate past glories. The chorus kicks in hard, Tim imploring “you can do better than that, hit me again and give it some impact” as the backing vocals lift the whole thing and give it that very impact.
Mask is a different beast musically as it’s built around electronic hooks that repeat in the verses and the breakdown and a galloping percussion in the chorus. It muses on breaking free from conventions and chains of societal expectations - “we all get born into chain gangs, we all get stamped with our code... took a hacksaw to the links, chains remained, I TNT’ed a ring, I’m escaping” - before asking the question in the chorus “I know I was wrong, are you so sure that you’re right? i’m a fool to think to be strong is to win every fight”
The album proper concludes with What's It All About?, a song that has already become a live favourite, and continues in the tradition of James' journey songs. A seven-and-a-half minute epic that goes through a number of phases, taking in some beautiful blasts of Andy Diagram's trumpet over a punchy drum beat as Tim ruminates on the meaning and complexity of life - "pain causes change, my life's an altered state, why complicate a mosaic" - and the way life isn't as ideal as you'd wish it to be. The last two minutes though could well be another song, as everything except the strum of acoustic guitar and some background atmospherics drops down and the album concludes with the perfect summation of the complexity of modern life when you're right in the middle of it and can't see a way out - "On a journey, I'm invested, I'm being asked to wait, from below the road seems twisted, from above it's straight."
The deluxe version of the album contains four further tracks from the sessions. The first of them is the only completed studio version recorded with Charlie and Beni. Backwards Glances seems slight and throwaway on first listen, but that would be doing it a massive disservice once you've heard it three or four times. So fragile in comparison to what's gone before, it would have felt as out of place on the record proper as Semaphore did on Hey Ma. Lyrically, it's about a woman who's found herself in a bad place and struggling to escape - "I can't rescue her from darkness, she's alone, we only learn from dark and painful choices" - and is so achingly beautifully and tenderly delivered that it stops you in your tracks and demands full emotional attention.
The final three tracks are demos recorded at Yellow Arch in Sheffield and produced by Mark and Saul. This gives a usually unheard insight into the songs that didn't quite make it, although Trouble and Overdose were played live in the summer of 2017 and the latter morphed in part as mentioned earlier into the almost title track. Whilst it's not difficult to draw the conclusion that the right choices were made in terms of final tracklisting, there's plenty to love in these three tracks. Moving Car starts with a wistful look-back at a carnal encounter in a car at the age of seventeen whilst Overdose hints at someone pulled back from the brink of suicide - "took an overdose, an overdose, the river nearly took your spirit too far out to see" - and Trouble declares "ecstasy, love, forgiveness, trinity, I thee wed" before the album's final statement "trouble, trouble, it's gonna be alright." The fact that they haven't gone through the album production process makes them a fascinating insight and certainly more than work the outlay for the deluxe edition and the gorgeous book that accompanies it.
Living In Extraordinary Times feel like James at their most relaxed with each other for a long time, allowing the producers Charlie and Beni to help shape and influence the songs in the way they did with Brian Eno. Unafraid to experiment and refusing to be silenced on things that matter to them, the record reflects their restless spirit more so than any they've created since Laid. There's moments that will appeal to the more casual fan (and tellingly these have been chosen as the singles - Better That That, Coming Home Part 2 and Many Faces) which prove that they still have it in them to create songs of mass connection, but as always it's where they step out of their comfort zone and try something different that they're at their most vital. Songs like Leviathan, Extraordinary Times and Hank push the envelope and challenge the listener to immerse themselves in the way the band do themselves and explain why thirty six years in James are still surprising and delighting people.
Living In Extraordinary Times is available in the following formats and a variety of bundles from the James store :
James Web Store Exclusive White Vinyl in yellow sleeve
Indies and HMV Exclusive Magenta Vinyl in grey sleeve
White Label Test Pressing Exclusive To Web Store
Everything other than the indies magenta vinyl is available from the band's official store.
Our review of Better Than That EP featuring Better Than That and Hank from the album can be found here.
James play festival shows at Linlithgow Party At The Palace (August 11), Scarborough Open Air Theatre (18) and Drumlanrig Electric Fields (30).
James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.
We also run the One Of The Three James archive, the most detailed resource for information about the band, and the site also has a Facebook and Twitter page.