"What are you concealing?"
One of the pleasing things about James is that they never really seemed to be a smaller part of a larger scene. Sure, every now and then they would release a single that would chime with the times, and sometimes that would equate to a big hit, such as when “Sit Down” briefly made them a ‘baggy’ act, or when “She’s a Star” made them look like Britpop’s knowing Uncles. The thing is, James have only ever been James, following where their muse led, heading up a sub-genre of just one act. This has resulted in periods where they enjoyed media support, when hit singles were plentiful, and others where they seemed as far away from the pulse of pop culture as it was possible to get. 1993’s Laid caught them at the point where they were enjoying significant success on the album charts (it was their third gold album in a row), with Brian Eno on production duties, and is arguably their finest hour.
One of the best things about Laid is that it doesn’t sound like James were chasing the youth market. There seems to have been an understanding within the band that a large portion of their fanbase were in their late 20s, edging into their early 30s, giving the song writing trio of Tim Booth, Larry Gott and Jim Glennie the scope to deliver more mature lyrical themes and subtler textures than the likes of say Suede or Blur were exploring at the time. With its supple sonics, Laid drips with quality, it’s subsequent durability confirming that James had higher concerns than just appearing on the front of the NME and shifting product. Hell, they even pay subtle tribute to Leonard Cohen on the cover.
Listening back to Laid 25 years after its release, it’s startling how well it has aged compared to so much British guitar music from the era. Laid is a soothing balm for sorrows, intelligent music for those of us with an ear for catchy tunes and great lyrics, but want to avoid predictable cliches. At least half of the thirteen tracks on Laid would have been huge hit singles if the world was a fair and just place, but it isn’t. The opening five tracks alone are worth the cost of the album, but in truth there’s absolutely nothing on Laid that could be classed as filler, and the title track in particular is one of the best songs of the 90s, with its suggestive lyrics and addictive drum pattern.
Quite why Laid failed to make James one of the biggest bands of the 90s is something that continues to confuse me, but then again most of what passed for British guitar music in that decade confused me, so perhaps that’s no great surprise. Perhaps in years to come both the band and the album will finally receive the recognition that they deserve.