An unexpectedly poignant turn from the indie veterans.
David Sheppard 2010-09-03
Manchester’s James have always been an anomalous pop phenomenon. Initially too idiosyncratic and uncompromising to fit even on as libertarian an imprint as Factory Records, for whom they made their debut in 1983, and always too insular and awkward to give hometown contemporaries The Smiths sleepless nights, when they did eventually hit chart pay dirt, at the turn of the 90s, it was with their distinctive t-shirt range as much as a line in empathetic, route one anthems.
A more reflective, sonically spacious, Eno-assisted period followed, garnering them a further smattering of hits along the way and birthing explorative, ambient detours like 1994’s Wah Wah, although few would have been surprised when, after a brief, fin de siècle rally, Tim Booth and co knocked the band on the head in 2001. They re-emerged in 2007, as the likes of Coldplay and Elbow were wooing millions with versions of the same sensitive, agonised rock that James had patented a decade-and-half before, the very same millions who largely ignored their 2008, Hey Ma comeback album.
All of which almost brings us to The Morning After – actually the self-explanatory companion piece to a similar mini-album, The Night Before, released earlier this year. Comprising eight tracks and running to just over half-an-hour, it’s a crucible of stark arrangements, contemplative moods and subtle hooks; never earth-shattering yet consistently, discreetly affecting.
Opener Got the Shakes is a shimmering, almost bluesy slow-burn, while the ensuing Dust Motes is a tender caress; Larry Gott’s slide guitar and Tim Booth’s aerated falsetto vocal achieving luminous synergy over a simple piano figure; the lyrics nonetheless offering liberal doses of 5am existential angst ("There’s a vulture at the end of my bed / It thinks I’m dead"). While Rabbit Hole and Lookaway offer typically Jamesian mellifluousness, the nearest thing to an anthem here is Tell Her I Said So, an initially restrained disquisition on mortality built on icy, tremolo synths, basic indie-rock drums and Booth’s almost casual vocal that cedes to a Another Brick In the Wall-style kids’ choir intoning the mantra, "Here’s to a long life". It is, like much of The Morning After, unexpectedly poignant.
- - -