What does one expect from a James record these days? Sit Down? I don’t think so. And yet, when James released that legendary tune not many people were expecting that either. James have always been about jamming and feeling the groove and some of their most successful songs and albums have emerged after a seemingly endless foray into the realm of the unexpected. But even here you might find the typical James record full to the brim with ‘James’ type anthems and ephemera. And haven’t you always suspected them of being capable of something else? Enter The Morning After.
James are Tim Booth (singer), Larry Gott (guitars), Jim Glennie (bass), Saul Davies (guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums) and Andy Diagram on trumpet. This is the line-up that recorded Gold Mother (spawning the hits How Was It For You, Come Home, Lose Control and Sit Down), and Seven (although Diagram was absent for the subsequent Eno-produced Laid and Wah Wah albums). It is also the line-up responsible for the band’s superb recent new mini-album The Night Before and the imminent new companion piece The Morning After.
The Morning After has an intuitive, low-key “campfire” feel and features some of the saddest, darkest lyrics Booth has ever come up with. The bluesy opener Got The Shakes is a song about an alcoholic guy waking up and realizing he has beaten his wife where the line “some people shouldn’t mess with thunder” is as menacing as it sounds. Dust Motes concerns a man checking the dust motes in the light, devastated that his relationship is over and the kiss-off line “I’ll forgive you your transgressions, I’ll forgive you – if you die!” is as clever, funny and twisted as this paradox suggests. Tell Her I Said So is about Booth’s mother dying in a home (which she compares to boarding school – “staff are cold the rules are rules, how can children be so cruel”) – and her being shocked that her life should end this way (“if I could leave I wouldn’t stay, never thought I’d end this way”) and yet here are the first signs of light: the song suddenly embraces disco, employs a childrens’ choir to sing the refrain “here’s to a long life, here’s to a life that’s lived too long” and becomes curiously life affirming. It’s a respite of sorts.
On the ballad Kaleidoscope, a man overhears his wife (of twenty years) on the phone (presumably) continuing an extra-marital affair and concluding that he is too scared to divorce: the irony is that she is really on the phone to her doctor who has told her she has cancer and only weeks to live. (Incidentally Booth got the idea for this song after being constantly caught on the phone organizing a surprise party for his wife!) The misperceptions are exacerbated on Rabbit Hole (featuring lovely slide guitar and deranged keyboards) where some Alice In Wonderland allusions compete with the generic acknowledgement that nothing is real and everything is imagined. Booth finishes the tune in falsetto and the song leads beautifully into Make For This City, another projection song or city in the mind/imagined utopia where everything works and we can leave our front doors open and be fascinated with each other rather than be scared.
Subsequently, The Morning After’s key track could easily be Look Away for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to listen to it without singing along: this is electronica (if not Electronic!) without the indifference, a song about not facing up to the facts and where the line “All that really matters is that you weren’t in the building when the walls came tumbling down” is bleak beyond compare. But you want bleak? Listen to the album’s closer Fear for here is a song with a mood and a mission. Atmospheric, experimental and just a little bit haunted, Fear tackles that dominant inner monologue that stalks (perhaps) the life that’s lived too long: “Fear fights for the drivers seat/Keeps breaking the chain/Next time he rides in the boot/We got wise to his game”.