The glittering thorn returns
James are back with a triumphant new album
In September last year the band headed off to Warsy Chateau in northern France to write and record what was to become their first new record in seven years. Their brief may have been immodest - "to not only match our earlier work but surpass it" - but the results are somewhat more spectacular: a record, Hey Ma, that recaptures the spirit of Laid and catapults James into the pantheon of artists who are more alluring and even more relevant second time around.
Warsy Chateau proved to be a unique working environment. Producer Lee 'Muddy' Baker (who'd worked with Booth on his 2004 solo album Bone) allowed the band to build their own studios in their rooms and constantly feed ideas back to him in the main studio. He also allowed the band to jam at leisure, something that always brings out the best in them - if you remember, Sit Down came out of "a twenty minute jam that only ended 'cos we were laughing too much to continue" - and ensuring a degree of spontaneity that had been lacking in the final days of James Mk1. The band wrote eight pieces in one five-hour spell and a hundred and twenty in total for a record that finally boasts eleven songs that are as good, if not better, than anything James have recorded before.
Hey Ma, the song, features some pretty strong imagery about falling towers and "dust in the air" and is probably as cutely subversive as Country Joe & the Fish singing "1-2-3. What are we fighting for?" although its hugely memorable chorus, 'Hey ma, the boy's in body bags,' is, if anything, more shocking for the jaunty way in which it is delivered. Booth concedes that "it could have been a great pop song" - by which I think he means a great single, as it's already a great pop song - "if it weren't for the lyric." He also admits that "protest songs don't work for me - I just like things with a weird edge!" although he could just as easily be talking about another song called Upside that Booth wrote about immigrant labour/ers trying to provide for their families back home.
A number of songs on Hey Ma seem furiously personal. The Lou Reed-esque Waterfall (surely a single) recalls an occasion when Booth, during his time working with composer Angelo Badalmenti, bathed naked at Snoqualmie Falls - the spectacular waterfall complex near Seattle featured in the television drama Twin Peaks - and felt a special energy connected with the place. There's an interesting theme running through the song, of a man with too much junk in his attic and a fear that his average dream of a life may contain too much television. In Whiteboy, the lyrics appear autobiographical: 'My mum says I look like Yul Brynner, Too old for Hamlet, too young for Lear' - as Booth imagines a teenage boy, stoned at the kitchen table, listening to his mother prattle on about her fears and dreams whilst in the background TV images interject. And Bubbles is surely inspired by the birth of Booth's son: 'Wash the boy in the stream, so tenderly, Press his lips to your lips, Give him your breath, He awakes with the weight, Of the vision he holds, Sees the rent in time, Through which he must fold'. Booth admits that he wrote this song whilst "half asleep" at 5 am - aware that "the more unconscious the words are the deeper they are" - and that when the band performed the song in Edinburgh for the first time they'd only just heard of the death of Tony Wilson. It had been Tony that had given James their first break all those years ago and the song and performance felt all the more poignant and emotional because of it.
There are, of course, several more blistering tracks on Hey Ma (I Wanna Go Home, about a man dying of remorse in a bar, and Of Monsters and Heroes and Men, a song that's intricately constructed around an extended poem, immediately springs to mind) but it would be churlish at this stage to be so particular. James may have always written "uplifting songs about insecurity, disaffection and mental illness" but Hey Ma is something else entirely: world-wary, rather than world-weary, intimate yet intimidating, foreign yet somehow fleetingly familiar, Hey Ma documents the sound of a band at the top of their game. It is also the sound of a band upsetting the odds like never before.