Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law
(Psalm 118: 19)
In a career spanning four decades James have been consistent only in their refusal to be any one thing. They have been quirky, folk pop minstrels on “Strip-Mine” (1986), stadium pop auteurs with “Seven”, baggy darlings with the likes of “Sit Down” and “Come Home”, electro-pop ’n’ rollers with “La Petite Mort” and “The Girl at the End of the World”…and dozens of other things in between.
They are all things.
They are everything.
Their “best of…” album was released 25 years ago, and in the years since they have released nine top twenty albums and another twenty plus singles. They continue to sell out massive venues, to headline festivals, and to refuse, ever, to play the game the way that other people want them to play.
They are unique.
In every regard.
Now they return with an album that cannot be described as a greatest hits, despite featuring some of their greatest hits, and that cannot be called a retrospective either because all of the songs have been reimagined in ways that makes them entirely new things. There are no remixes, no “alternative” takes, nothing is “stripped back”. As ever James have decided to do something… else.
Here they have taken songs from across their forty year career and recorded them with an orchestra. Such a simple thing but the difference it makes is huge. Things that are instantly recognisable, like “Sit Down”, take on a new form entirely. Everything is turned down, and turned up, in the same instant. The swell of the strings hits like a kiss from a lover. The familiar are born again. Things that are treasured only by the devout, suddenly sound like hymns from a village, music to unite and heal.
Take a song like “The Lake”, originally a b-side for the 1993 single, “Laid”. A song that was initially not included on the album “Laid” because the band vetoed it over its lyrical content, despite it being a favourite of singer Tim Booth. Or that’s the story. How could I know if it’s true? What is definitely true is that here it sounds like the greatest song they have ever recorded. In this form it is unrecognisable from the version on the single, it is infused with a power, a majesty, a force, that makes it sound…important?
Credit: Elly Lucas
The same thing happens with “Alaskan Pipeline” from the 2001 album, “Please to Meet You”. A lot of people who bought the album may well have only heard the song once, but here it is 22 years later taking its place alongside the songs that fill dance floors at indie discos still. This isn’t a band playing fast and loose with the loyalty, and patience, of their audience, instead it is a sign of how much the band respects their audience.
Another band would have celebrated four decades by re-issuing, re-packaging, their back catalogue, all the while pointedly refusing to re-evaluate it. But not James, no extra track and tacky badge here. This is a thoughtful, compelling, emotionally vibrant, and moving selection of songs that the band feels captures who they are now…not what they were then. A second greatest hits with “I Know What I’m Here For”, “Just Like Fred Astaire”, “We’re Going to Miss You”, “Getting Away With It” and the rest would have been easy, but why settle for easy when you can open yourself up to the wonderful?