As they approach forty years as a band James are still going strong, selling more gig tickets than at any time in their history and continuing to challenge both themselves and their audience by developing and stretching their sound with each album. Their sixteenth studio album All The Colours Of You asks questions of the world around them, in their line of sight the mutation of the extraordinary times of their last album into social revolution, pandemic and personal loss, unafraid to challenge whilst pushing their playful side to the fore. Weird, but accessible, it's possibly the most accurate snapshot of the real essence of James that they've ever released.
All The Colours Of You could bear the subtitle (Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention). Roll back to September 2019 and James stepped off stage in Porto ahead of taking a well-earned break after five years on the album-tour-tour-repeat treadmill. In their back pockets they had rough demos for their sixteenth album as they scattered to the far corners of California, Scotland, Portugal, Wales and London. Tentative plans were being put together for summer 2020 festival shows and time spent to convert those demos born of jams into an album. COVID had other ideas. Unlike most bands releasing albums now that were shaped in the pandemic, James were hamstrung by location, but were about to be dealt a kind hand by coincidence.
Producer Jacknife Lee's mark is all over All The Colours Of You. By chance he lived a couple of miles from James' frontman Tim Booth in Topanga Canyon in California. Like Tim, he had no intention of travelling anywhere during the pandemic. They met, shared the demos, and set to work with the rest of the band contributing and directing from across the Atlantic. Elements of the record come from Jacknife taking those demos and smashing them to pieces and rebuilding, creating some very unusual and initially unnatural sounding structures. The absence of time pressure allowed Booth to perfect his lyrics and filter events in the world and his personal life into the songs.
The output is an album that sounds as fresh and vital as anything they're previously released, my first response to it, as a long long-term James fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of their work, was "what the fuck have they done?", but a couple of listens in and the kaleidoscopic pieces of the jigsaw, contemporary psychedelia as Tim has called it in interviews, started to make sense.
It starts with Zero, the album's longest track, and its opening line "we're all gonna die, that's the truth" that emerges from a chatter of voices with a clarity of purpose and thought that runs through the whole album. Rather than focus on the morbid rut you could have fallen into as the world retreated into its own world, Tim urges the listener to live in the moment, a continuation in theme from their last album Living In Extraordinary Times, with the command to "let go of the mind, lie back and float" with the revelation "some days I go no, some days I go yeah, some days I go woah" surrounded by a wall of drum rolls and electronically treated vocals. It's powerful, potent and as strong as an album opener as they've ever produced in their thirty-eight years.
All The Colours Of You has, as with James' incursions into political statements in their music that should come as no surprise to anyone who's followed them since the likes of Fire So Close, Charlie Dance and Promised Land in the 1980s, raised eyebrows. Set to a pounding electronic beat, it's bolder and more direct territory musically for a band of such vintage that they should by the rules have no right to be dancing in. Whilst the line "he's the ku klux klan, k coup, president's your man, he's the ku klux klan" might draw most of the attention, it distracts from the positive intent of the title of the song and album's key message "the red, the white, the black and blue, LOVE all the colours of you."
Recover has a deeply personal story behind it; the death from COVID of Tim's father-in-law Savile during the first wave. Lyrically, it walks through the early stages of grieving, from the warnings at the start of the pandemic "stay inside, stay alive, it'll be alright," the isolation to the first signs of the virus catching hold to the final day when Tim sang Sit Down to him over Facetime from America - "your last call was a song" - reflecting the experiences of many in the same way Moving On captured the death of his mother in a way people could relate to. Rather than dwell, once the initial grieving has passed, it finishes with the promise "we will remember how to pass your spirit on" and a gorgeous violin section to melt hardened hearts.
Beautiful Beaches is a glorious romp, despite the dark overtones of the lyrical content, Tim fleeing from the Californian wildfires that regularly threatened to destroy his homes and possessions. Like much of All The Colours Of You, it's underpinned by optimism, which almost turns into euphoria, propelled along by the momentum of the electronic drums that provide the power. As it seemingly comes to its conclusion, it heads off in a different direction, an unexpected twist, that both isn't necessary in terms of what's gone before but is essential to the spirit and joie de vivre of the whole album.
Wherever It Takes Us starts as one of James' story songs, the verses telling of a young woman activist, injured in the line of protest, looking for somewhere to escape from her pursuers, to tend to her injuries or even to die. The descriptive nature of the lyrics could be set to film. The chorus is transcendent though, a multitude of voices coming together to declare "we're all in wherever it takes us, we're all in, it breaks and it shapes us, we're all in wherever it takes us, let's ride" before returning to the story. It's a real contrast, the link between verse and chorus isn't clear, as it is with one of their biggest songs Sometimes, yet it feels irrelevant the moment the chorus lifts you off your feet. It's going to be a huge live moment once they can reassemble it.
The album pauses for breath a little with the next two songs - at least from a point of view of the speed. Hush is a curious song about a ghost who haunts his (or her) killer from the opening line "was surprised you showed up to my wake, guess you wanted proof I'd made it through the gates" through to the song's conclusion where the tables are turned and the ghost threatens to haunt the murderer "my humming in your sleep keeps you awake, try writing off this friend you cannot shake" underpinned by a sinister yet simple piano followed by a hum that shows he means business. As the song develops the ghost comes to terms with their death, completing the story.
Miss America tells the story of the collapse of the American dream through the eyes of a beauty pageant contestant. Lyrically full of references to the contest - "Miss America's wearing thin, she's all tiaras and glamour.....it's all snakes no ladders" - and the way society is heavily weighted towards the white rich minority - "may God bless you and your golden sons" - even as it collapses around them set to a very understated backing track which builds as it progresses and the dream starts to crumble slowly.
The next three tracks certainly bring the playful element of the collaboration between James and Jacknife back to the fore. Getting Myself Into has a wonderful piano line through it that feels so imperfectly perfect, an off-kilter earworm but in a magical way rather than a slipshod one. Full of brilliant one-liners - "Cinderella at midnight, all I got is a shoe" and "back at the bar it's half past midlife" - and references to Jack And The Beanstalk, it's a hit single born in the wrong time and place, any attempts at making it less so making it more so, and one of the album's stand out moments.
Magic Bus follows a similar path, a pounding drum beat calling the tune as we're taken on a mystical journey - "We had maps we got lost We had plans they got tossed We dropped out for the love and the trust" - through an acid tainted world reflecting Tim's fascination with the use of psychedelic drugs as a form of therapy. It feels much longer than the three minutes such is the way it draws you in and makes you feel part of the song, something that James achieve throughout All The Colours Of You.
Isabella is the story of a mystery woman who comes in and turns someone's life upside down and leaves them in a mess, besotted by them to the point where there's no escape - "Someday soon when I die They’ll do an autopsy Find your bullet inside The way that you killed me that night Shot a hole in my heart Some part of me died" - from the addiction and thrill of the chase but no way of getting what they want because of her love of freedom and being one step ahead of her suitors who she leaves in her wake. Musically, it sets the pulses racing from the start before a word is divulged and never takes its foot off the accelerator, never predictable, never more than a couple of bars away from an unexpected turn.
XYST (pronounced Exist) heads back into the dark world of COVID America and the way the homeless were thrown on the scrapheap, although it could very much be used to describe the way in which governments and the wealthy across the world simply turn a blind eye to extreme poverty and suffering on their doorstep - "Throw me a bone here, I’m down on my luck, You won life’s lottery, Now you don’t give a fuck" - but once again concludes with a positive sense of optimism and coming together to fight against the controlling system. When the twitter police shout to keep politics out of music, they mean of course keep politics that don't agree with theirs out of music, but what they miss is how the optimism that sits within these songs is part of a solution that will benefit everyone, a social message more than a political one.
Without the often stifling intensity of the studio environment the songs on All The Colours Of You are given the space to breathe, James relinquishing control to Jacknife and allowing his ideas to infiltrate and infuse the record in a way their search for absolute perfection has sometimes prevented their albums from reflecting the energy and risk-tasking adrenaline of their live shows. Circumstance has led to compromise in approach, but not to quality.
Like when Eno loosened those chains during the recording of Laid and Wah Wah, All The Colours Of You is perhaps the most Jamesian of James albums - an instinctive unplanned reaction to whatever chaos the world has thrown at the band. If you're here to relive your youth, you've come to the wrong place. Perhaps All The Colours Of Us would have been a more appropriate title.
All The Colours Of You is released on June 4 on CD, deluxe CD, four different vinyl, cassette and digital from the band's official store.
They play 2021 festival dates at London Kenwood House (June 24), Margate Dreamland (July 31), Y-Not
Festival (August 1), Beautiful Days Festival (21), Lancaster Highest Point Festival (September 2),
Warrington Neighbourhood Festival (4), Scarborough Open Air Theatre (9), Isle
Of Wight Festival (17) and Glasgow Playground Festival (24) before a UK and
Ireland tour supported by Happy Mondays calling at Leeds First Direct Arena
(November 25), Birmingham Utilita Arena (26), Cardiff Motorpoint Arena (28),
Glasgow Hydro (30), Dublin 3Arena (December 1), Manchester Arena (3) and
London Wembley Arena (4).
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.
TimBoothLyricADay, whose posts often lead to Tim explaining his thought processes behind the lyrics, can be found on Twitter and Facebook.