The latest release from British pop band James, Living in Extraordinary Times, takes the band’s familiar up-tempo, romantic spirit and mixes in a fair amount of grit and anxiety courtesy of life in 2018. The resulting sound is what I imagine would result if you froze a ‘90s Britpop band, woke them up in 2018, and immediately told them about the last two years. The album’s songs are infused with anger, frustration, disillusionment, and sadness, but also have their share of hope, romance and idealism injected to keep the whole affair from dragging you down.
The album opener “Hank” is a surprisingly, but appropriately, industrial-lite song, full of angry couplets about the current American president and the division he stokes. The sentiments and barbs here are nothing new (there is a reference to his “tiny fingers”), but it’s always worth reminding people of this person’s insidious and manipulative nature. “Why put your faith in facts when you can lie?” singer Tim Booth asks, “now every possibility exists in everybody’s mind,” which is an efficiently haunting way to phrase the trouble wrought by the “fake news” phenomenon. The song ends with a vision of an “empire” only being able to prove it once existed by the size of its carbon footprint left behind, a scary possibility at this point. It’s an ear-catching song, and certainly, one that you can enjoy for its catharsis, even if the heavy music on display is not what you expect from a James album.
The rest of the album does not ride such an intense wavelength, but each song does succeed in sustaining the energy of the album. Taken as a whole, Extraordinary Times is a bit too long to listen to at once, but individually each track renews itself with a specific energy and spirit that prevents the album from ever sagging under its own weight.
James has a lot to say about the state of the world right now—specifically the upending of progress in both the U.S. and U.K.—but the way they explore their reactions vary enough in interesting ways throughout most of the album without overwhelming. Every “2018-relevant” song is not an angry blast like “Hank,” nor is it a weeper about how sad everything is. “Heads” starts with a stomping, vaguely militaristic beat that evolves into chaotic noise to reflect the hypocritical claimed greatness of America, complete with Booth singing a purposefully atonal “land of the free” with just enough bite in it. “Many Faces” is a slower, more romance-tinged song. But, rather than repeat the message of “Leviathan,” the closest thing to a pop love song on the album (but which still contains the lyric “before they drop the bomb”), “Many Faces” sings lovingly about the human race. “There’s only one human race” with many faces, Booth reminds us, “but we’re all the same, [and] you got skin in the game.”
It’s that mix of frustration with people in power, and anguish over the trajectory we’re riding now, that fills out this album and makes it one of the more relatable “reacting to 2018” albums released recently. It’s so relatable, that there is a track—“How Hard the Day”—that is about surprising yourself with how angry and negative you can be, and are, as a result of steeping yourself in this divisive and negative culture (“rubbing your nose in the dirt,” as the lyrics say).
Towards the end of the album we move away from the unusual-but—enjoyable industrial influences in the band’s sound, and into songs that feel as though they’ve had a couple grains of ‘90s club beats tossed into them. “Picture of This Place” and “Better Than That,” in particular, feel as though if they were remixed just a bit they could sound like new Prodigy songs. “Hope to Sleep”, on the other hand, reflects the other work of album producer Charlie Andrew with Alt-J. On this track, they create a sound that is reflective of modern English pop-rock bands, and it suits James surprisingly well.
Ultimately, this is an energetic, impassioned output from a band that does not nearly sound as “old” as you might expect them to on their 16th album release.