What can you say about Jim Bob that hasn’t been said before? He wasn’t in dance punk rascals Carter USM, he didn’t have a silly haircut and he isn’t one of the most underrated lyricists of the last 30 years. In the last five of those he’s got into novel writing, winning praise for his first two efforts and with a third being touted for big things, and has found new ways to politely decline his annual Buzzcocks invite. A giveaway EP last year hinted at a return to music and now the Crystal Palace wordsmith has a ninth album of couplets and breezy tunes, metering his anger into his most accessible set of songs yet and threatening to escape his 6 Music fan base.
The draw of What I Think About When I Think About You is Jim getting a handle on the love songs that have escaped him for so long - after three decades singing about racism in the army, the Brixton riots, photocopiers and potty-mouthed food technology teachers, he’s gone directly for fluttering hearts and is backed by the orchestra to match them. Like Aidan Moffat’s team-ups with Bill Wells the searing honesty now comes in different flavours, with ‘Hands Free’ spilling out a piano tune where Jim wonders if mobile headsets are just an excuse for dumped people to shout at the ground. ‘Your Ghost’ is a pouncing country song that claims the true meaning of true love is coming back as someone else’s spirit, not your own, while ‘Breaking News’ uses ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ as a handrail to toss out images of Broken Britain, each capped with the suffix ”I won’t let you go through this alone”.
Yes, Broken Britain. Jim's still got a bead on stuff that irks him, and still has access to the reservoirs of rage that got so many ‘90s kids stage-diving (watching old Carter gigs on YouTube is not unlike Brass Eye’s weasel fighting in the East End sketch). When he wants to show fangs he does so with the smallest of nods to the charts today: ‘Coach A Seat 21’ opens with jarring strings similar to Plan B’s ‘iLL Manors’, unfolding into a scowling look at the world; ‘Monster in a Tracksuit’ focuses on just one part of it, a punk and piano jig on Saville’s grave. ” The 1960s and 70s were a honeytrap/All the fixes in my studio and on the running track/On the TV reading out the TOTP autocue/Everybody says of course they always thought they knew/Still rewarded him with Christmas on the kids’ ward/A touch upon the shoulders with a big sword”. Other gripes are just as firmly targeted with Jim taking particular pleasure in a frisky stab at Kickstarter with ‘Dream Come True’ (“£25 for all three formats of this song/A numbered gatefold sleeve with your name printed on”), and the nostalgia he feels for his own mugging on ‘Blood on Your Shoes’ (” In 1973 I was stabbed in a bowling alley/Chased around an ABC cinema carpet/Now the bowling alley is closed/It’s a Sainsbury’s or a Tesco’s/2004/A fractured cheek and a broken jaw/Just feet from the old front door of the police station/The police station is closed/It’s a luxury block of condos”). Adorably grumpy and riding a big zigzag of guitars, it’s like Victor Meldrew putting on ripped jeans.
Not giving in to underlying despair is the album’s secret weapon, and makes What I Think About Jim’s most marketable set of songs in almost 30 years. He’s never lost his grip on what’s topical, or what hurts the most (the teenage scream on ‘Seventeen’ is up there with Janie Ian), but is now able to clearly make his point without earsplitting drum machines and dubious fringes. On the closing track he uses just a piano to show how pictures of his other half have been torpedoed by headlines he can't forget (“School children shot down on the whim of an angry young man/Angry young man turning the gun on himself/This is what I think about/When I think about you”), affirming the need for closeness in dark times and tying together the two halves of his album with a bow. To everyone who’s followed Jim’s brand of social commentary he’s always been a national treasure; to those who don’t, What I Think About When I Think About You shows he’s getting harder to deny with each release.
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