James are heading for their 35th year together as a band so it’s something of a surprise to learn that their latest album, their 12th studio album, came very close to being their very first to reach #1. Of course, their bumper singles-fest “The Best of” reached #1 in 1998, going on to be certified twice platinum and reminding the general record buying public just how many massive anthems James have released over the years, and whilst they went their separate ways in 2001, to reform in 2007, they’ve never really been very far from the public consciousness, evidenced by the new LP (ultimately landing at #2 behind Adele) and a hugely successful arena tour in the coming months.
“The Girl At the End of the World” is the band’s 3rd album (not including two mini-albums) since their 2007 reforming and becomes their highest profile. Singles/buzz tracks “To My Surprise” and “Nothing But Love” have both received plenty of spins on Radio 2 and show a confident attitude of “more of the same” but in new and interesting ways. James have always excelled when it comes to passionate singles, from the persuasive pleas of “Sit Down” and “Say Something” to the excitable frustration of “Laid” and “Born of Frustration”. Their second wave of interest in the late 1990s came thanks to the huge hits on “Whiplash” such as “She’s a Star” and “Tomorrow”, which showed that with maturity came more of the same brilliant songwriting.
The latest album opens with “Bitch” which steadily builds over layered swirling guitars and an insistent drumbeat over 2 minutes before Tim Booth’s vocals cut through the howl and noise to a typically quirky and memorable refrain of “I’m just a bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch”. There’s a hint of the Eastern exotic about the track which then slams into the first of the two big pre-release tracks “To My Surprise”. With its brilliant chorus of “Were you just born an asshole?”, the song is all keyboard drumloops, soaring guitars and more of Booth’s sweetly howling vocals. Next up is the standout track “Nothing But Love”, a bittersweet little song which starts like a Hawaiian campfire song but soon becomes a tender anthem to forces of nature both literal and emotional. Its video is also beautifully heartbreaking.
Tracks like “Attention”, showcase just how eclectic James are, this time it’s a piano ballad which becomes a distorted EDM track whilst “Dear John” is a moody synth-laden track with a Wild Western whistle. “Catapult” is at first darker, with rock guitars and answers the earlier question from “To My Surprise” by admitting “I was born an asshole”. As with most James songs, all is not as it seems, as it soon mixes genres again, adding country and light drum ‘n’ bass to the track. “Move Down South” begins discordantly and emphatically then adds blaring instrumentation before finally turning into an alternative folk anthem.
“Feet of Clay” is another lovely little ode to love and failure and “Surfer’s Song” is as it sounds, wave after wave of emotion, with joy, hope and anticipation building to a euphoric chorus. “Alvin” stands out as something of a change of pace, being all funky and French, but is less successful, not that it matters at just over 2 minutes in length. It is swiftly followed by “Waking” which restores the balance with a tight, snappy structure of persistent guitars and haunting brass.
Final track and album title track “Girl At the End of the World” is a mixture of everything which has gone before, being both soaring, haunting and rueful and featuring some of Booth’s most aching vocals, inviting you to join his pain in a joyous singalong.
If the album sees a band once again at the height of its commercial success, then it also sees back at its creative and critical peak too. A resounding return to form and to the limelight.
The band are on tour throughout May taking in Bristol, Southend, London, Norwich, Bournemouth, Llandudno, Leeds, Hull, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham and Nottingham. Tickets are available here.