Far be it from me to accuse anyone of being lazy, but lumping James in with the Madchester movement is a bit, well, cheap, isn’t it? True enough they emerged from the ash end of the Eighties and enjoyed their greatest success at the start of the next decade. And yes, they came from Whalley Range (although Tim Booth is a Yorkshireman). But James were always a bit of an outlier, weren’t they?
For one thing, none of you actually owns a James album that isn’t Gold Mother, do you? They were always the quintessential singles band, known by and large for the likes of ‘Sit Down’, ‘Laid’ and ‘She’s a Star’, and the one thing those songs have in common is that they are really, really good pop songs. They don’t have the laddish swagger or the drug culture connotations of the Hacienda: they have massive hooks, emotive guitars, a powerful vocal undercut with genuine tenderness and lyrics everyone knows.
Pop music is, as dictated by your new overlord Taylor Swift, all the rage right now. The best-received David Bowie tributes have been those from Lady Gaga and Lorde and, for some reason, everyone loves The 1975’s new record. It makes perfect sense then, that a band who have shown that they can do really fucking good pop music might want to give it another go after what must be a 20-year-absence.
Yes, Girl at the End of the World is James’s fifth studio album since they returned from a seven-year absence with 2008’s Hey Ma. And the last four haven’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination: they’ve been solid, well-reviewed rock albums. They had near-anthemic songs packed with swelling verses and catchy choruses, well-made and interesting, but not enough that anyone but the staunchest James fan revisits them these days.
This album does feel like an attempt to move away from that, albeit an uncertain one. For large parts of the record the guitars have gone by the wayside, such as on the Goldfrappish ‘Alvin’ – the most exciting track they’ve done in years – or ‘Dear John’, which has a synth riff that’s almost shamelessly ripped off from Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’. At other times it would be easy to leave Girl at the End of the World on in the background and forget you’re not listening to something the Pet Shop Boys put out this decade. It’s also worth mentioning ‘Move Down South’, which, with its distorted alt-country slide guitar could have been found on the cutting room floor from the Joshua Tree recording sessions (this is a compliment, even if I have accidentally implied it belongs on Rattle and Hum).
The thing is, it never feels as though James are comfortable with wholly embracing something brand new and daring. It could be down to Booth’s voice, which is as technically excellent as it ever was but feels a touch tired and lacks the punch of his earlier work until the album’s closing, title track. It’s this song that epitomises the album’s weakness though. It, like perhaps one too many songs on here, could have come from any record they’ve put out in the last dozen years. It sounds like it could be a James classic but gives up just as it gets going and renders itself pleasant-but-forgettable.
Earlier I said, glibly, that none of you own a James record that isn’t Gold Mother. If you do have another, the chances are it’s stored away somewhere you don’t think about very often. The chances are, too, that The Girl at the End of the World, likeably well-intentioned as it may be, will end up in the same place.
6Dan Lucas's Score