Often feels like a shout into the void.
Manchester’s James are an ambitious lot. That may come as a surprise to most Americans, who likely only know of the band through their infectious earworm of a hit “Laid,” but each James album had aspirations for epicness, both in scope and in length. At times, this method of expression can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting in equal measure. Living in Extraordinary Times doesn’t do anything to change that aspect of the band, but it does pair their grand ambitions with a focus aimed sharply at the present day. What comes out of it is something brazen and aggressive, but the band’s typically clever wordplay is unfortunately replaced with political sloganeering done in the most obvious way possible.
The title may make reference to the utter shitshow created by the election of a spray-tanned buffoon to the office of President of the United States, but James’ interfacing with modernity goes beyond overtly political lyricism. Whereas previous James albums had a foot in the past and a reliance on the tried-and-true sounds of pop and psychedelia, Extraordinary Times updates their sound with influences from today’s festival rock circuit. Some of this could be attributed to the presence of producer Charlie Andrew, whose work with Alt-J is a precursor for what James are trying to achieve. As it turns out, that sort of soaring festival rock is something the band can pull off with aplomb. “Leviathan” comes across as a piss-take of the likes of Coldplay while also adding the slightest bit of sincerity to a song about using sex as an antidote to anxiety. Furthermore, when the band focus on some of the more mundane anxieties of modern living, the combination of lyric and composition creates some real magic, most notably on the ode to digitally present and physically absent parents “Coming Home (Pt. 2).” Over the stretch of its long running time, Living In Extraordinary Times offers a fair amount of brilliant moments.
Alas, those moments are sandwiched between Tim Booth’s stab at political commentary. Whether the man wants to talk about Trump, Brexit or the online white nationalists irrevocably tied to both, he attacks modern politics with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. “Hank” gets things off to a less than auspicious start with pounding, reverberating drums and references to Russian blackmail and Trump’s tiny, tiny fingers. “Heads” goes further, chastising the wave of Trump voters working against their own self-interest in the name of misguided, racist notions of “patriotism.” Booth sings these lines with conviction and passion, and it’s clear that these words come from a place of sincerity. However, the lyrics are so leaden and obvious (and the pairing music so often bombastic) that they induce cringes more than righteous raised fists. Booth offers little more than anger in the same terms and language one would get from a John Oliver piece, and with far less intentional laughter. Perhaps it’s impossible to express this sort of political outrage and not sound like an angry kid, but one would think that James would at least try.
James certainly aren’t lacking for ambition on Living In Extraordinary Times, but the album too often feels like a shout into the void. It’s the musical equivalent of a left-leaning political tweet or Facebook post: it’s easy to agree with, but it leaves your mind once you click the “Like” button and move on to the next piece of content. That would be unfortunate from any band, but from a band who so regularly grabbed attention over the course of long albums in the past, it’s particularly disappointing.