James are finally back with an album that sounds triumphant and empowered in the wake of Tim Booth’s personal tragedy.
eteran alt-rockers James are back with their 12th studio album, La Petite Mort, their first since 2008’s Hey Ma. Literally translated as ‘The Little Death’, the album title along with the cover’s Día de Muertos skull are clear indications that mortality looms large in the band’s world, understandably so considering that it was recorded after frontman and lyricist Tim Booth lost both his mother and best friend.
But La Petite Mort is so much more than a solemn meditation on death. It is a celebration of life and release. Just as the saying itself actually refers to the spiritual state that accompanies an orgasm, the album is as much about letting go and losing yourself as it is grieving and losing yourself. On Frozen Britain Booth implores “Emily come to bed, make a boy out of me” and then repeatedly yelps the album’s title in a way that suggests his orgasmic moment isn’t too far off and during Curse Curse thousands more join the band in climax as “Messi shoots and scores”.
If anything, the feeling of euphoria, exaggerated by Max Dingel’s full-on production assault, sometimes takes away from the music. Literally so in the case of the aforementioned Curse Curse, which starts with beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the Balearic Islands. Booth’s lyrics and cracked croon sometimes get lost under this sheen. A simple song like the ballad Bitter Virtue would punch harder without being dampened by synths and an electronic snare.
Production issues aside, there are songs on La Petite Mort which show that James still have that magic ability to soar and swell. Album closer All I’m Saying builds slowly and steadily to a familiar crescendo and it’s not hard to imagine it closing a set in venues much larger than James are destined to play this autumn. Lead single Moving On is equally anthemic, in the classic James style (and matched by an exquisite video), driven forward by Jin Glennie’s bass and Larry Gott’s thumping drums. There is sadness in the song’s lyrics “God, didn’t see it coming, never said I love you, hope you knew” but there is triumph in the music’s optimism.
This may not be remembered as James’ finest album, but as a statement on rising from sadness and celebrating life it leaves its mark. The blend of instantly memorable choruses fit for stadiums mixed with a newer electronic sound deserve a listen even without the backstory, but in context the music becomes an altogether more rewarding experience. Booth signs off with the line ‘see you next time’ and, on the strength of La Petite Mort, it’s more than just wishful thinking.
Verdict: A welcome return.