Wednesday, 16 April 2008

JAMES: Upside

I've no idea whether "Upside" is specifically about the loneliness of touring - the line "My work's about words and sounds you can taste" seems to point to that - but typically the song becomes considerably more than that. Although James would perhaps bristle at any suggestion of the general downward spiral that I detect in Hey Mama, their new album after far too many years away, the smiling conflict continues between the handy-sized anthemic nature of their songs - anthems you can touch and feel, which don't always quite pull together, and few bands are better equipped to realise the unrealisable than James, especially as they have now returned to their full seven-strong strength, Larry Gott included - and the gloomy nature of most of what they're singing about; despite the excitable yells of "I'm alive!" throughout "Bubbles" and the nearly final breathless triumph of "We'll survive" at the climax of "Of Monsters And Heroes And Men," the introspection becomes darker and more pronounced as the album wears on; the endless torture of the spinning world in "Boom Boom," the allusions to domestic violence in the eerily circumspect "Semaphore." And of course there are the boys coming home in body bags throughout the purply march of the title track, while single "Whiteboy" is a superb, Anthony Blanche too close to the microphone damn them all tirade against constant drones, bling and tat, rebirths of frustration. But then the whole show ends with the ironic anti-U2 anthemism of "I Wanna Go Home" which finds Booth in a bar, dying in both heart and body.

"Upside," however, seems to depict a scenario which many of us had hoped would die swiftly after the time of, say, the second official Wah! album; the tale of migrant workers, either away from or coming to Britain, but certainly away from those they love...slowly falling apart but manfully trying to hold themselves together for the supposed greater good ("Lucky to work when work is scarce/Father must feed/Must provide"). Over a rolling 6/8 balladic gait Booth exclaims in the chorus: "Upside: love you! Downside: miss you. I'm here, you are there." He seems especially to hurt on the phrase "dancing bear" - the exploited slave, regardless of distance, robbed of choice and closeness ("Send seasonal greetings from nowhere," "Connected to you by a mobile").

Booth's performance is magnificent; there is more than a nod to Suede (or more probably Suede should be nodding to James) in both vocal and arrangement but he seems to uncover crevices of crack-up which Anderson has always been slightly too polite to visualise and touch; thus the bisyllabic weep which he deploys on the second "yesterday" of the phrase "Yesterday, yesterday," on the "there"s and "bear"s of the choruses - and then, most crucially, on the middle eight where he crumbles like a stamped-upon Flake chocolate bar on the "taste" of "sounds you can taste" but still manages to bend down for a childlike "violins and trumpets," a heartbreakingly tactile "Chocolate cakes" and the final intimacy-verging-on-numbness of "Here are some words...kissing your face." He returns to the blustery chorus in order to keep from further crying; then there is one final climactic key change - and poignantly Andy Diagram's trumpet can't quite get to those ultra-high notes, but he tries, for the sake of goodness and preserved nobility he tries. And then it ends on the unmissable premise that something has to change.