Express & Star

James's Tim Booth: Songs in tune with joy of life

Love is a cyclone, age a sham, the world in freefall. The planet is in the hands of poisonous profiteers, conspiracies abound and we’re working for our phones now.

Tim Booth

Such is life in 2024 according to James’ 18th studio album Yummy; 12 astute melodic dispatches from an era of global overwhelm, stalked by death but blessed by love and companionship. And it is – by the record’s own admission – a miracle.

“This record is really uplifting and joyful, but a lot of that comes from the music,” says singer Tim Booth of a career-high album that confronts ageism, conspiracy theory, AI control, the mental health pandemic, ecological apocalypse, mortality and modern love in all its shades. “Some of the lyrics are pretty hard-nosed.”

James’ longevity – with over 25 million albums sold over their 42-year career and their celebrated reunion period since 2007 earning them more Top 20 album placings and faster ticket sales than their whirlwind initial run from 1982 to 2001 – is miraculous itself, but with simple cause. James, you see, are more than a band; they’re a sonic belonging. From their earliest days, gathering a cult following around compulsive alt-rock gallops like ‘Johnny Yen’ or uniting the early Nineties with ‘Sit Down’, ‘Sometimes ’ and ‘Laid’, they were a hand from the darkness, dispensing euphoric, anthemic comfort at a touch. More recent albums such as the critically acclaimed La Petite Mort (2014), the Number Two hit Girl at the End of the World (2016), Living in Extraordinary Times (2018) and All the Colours of You (2021) dealt with politics, grief and a doomed world spinning out of control, but the band’s inclusive, love laden heart still glowed like a beacon.

There were a fair few hurdles to jump in the making of this record. Writing sessions began in September 2021 but two sessions were stymied by Covid outbreaks amongst the writers. In the traditional James fashion, the band would record lengthy jams from which members would later pluck sections to develop into songs. James would reconvene for three more sessions between November 2021 and June 2022 at the windswept Broughton Hall Estate in Yorkshire – “A real Heathcliff kind of thing,” says bassist Jim Glennie. 86 jams were recorded over three weeks.

“We’ve had to beg, steal and borrow parts from all the band members in between live performances that we were doing,” Saul explains. “It was sometimes chaotic, but I don’t think it’s suffered from that approach.”

Chloe Alper’s wicked backing vocals are a case in point. Her layered arrangements might be the most striking sonic difference marking this album from its predecessors. “Chloe and Debbie (Knox- Hewson) have been in the band for five years now,” says Tim. “Their presence has helped shift us into a new phase. We are simply having a lot more fun. It’s reflected in the album title.”

Yummy is a quintessential James album: comforting yet adventurous, electronic yet human, dark yet life-affirming, experimental yet familiar, heart-warming yet deeply introspective on both the personal and human scale. “You’d think I’d be wise from all these lives,” Tim jokes on ‘Rogue’ (referencing his experiences with past life regression therapy) but Yummy is as sage and worldly as modern rock gets. Its string-swept opener and calling card, ‘Is This Love’, for instance – a fine example of the album’s ability to subtly blend cutting edge synthetics into organic James anthems – is as complex a dissection of love in all its forms as has ever been put to tape.

“Can you love more than one equally? Is love shaped by a screen, films that you’ve seen, peace of mind?” Tim sings, poring over the pain, heat, battle, distance, fear, release and endurance of this mercurial emotion, in pursuit of its point and purpose. “It’s about Eros,” he explains, “when love is like a brick through a window and you’re terrified because it could bring the house down. A frighteningly alive state.”

“Our world isn’t your world, you just stole the world,” Tim sings, “fake democracies come cheap, profit today from our children’s tomorrow, get rich quick in Eldorado”.

“Greed and power and money have control of the issue,” he says. “People want change, but our Governments have been bought by the profiteers. It’s mind-blowingly stupid, mind-blowingly ignorant and short sighted, but that is the flaw in human nature. That if there’s a profit to be made, everything else goes out the window.”

Also undermining our psychic stability, Yummy attests, is technology and its insidious effects. The spectacular, Afro-tronic ‘Mobile God’ is written from the perspective of a smartphone – the PA, babysitter, loan shark, plaything, spy and parasite ruling over us from our pockets. “I’m the last thing you stroke in the evening before bed, I’m the lover you touch in the morning,” it boasts, “your life belongs to me”. Don’t fear the AI takeover, the moral goes, we already work for them. “It’s shocking the way we’ve given up our responsibility to AI,” Tim says. “We are already cyborgs.”

‘Hey’ – a hallucinogenic piece of gospel pop – meanwhile, addresses the media fears and online conspiracy theories that help keep us docile, noting that “belief is stronger than proof” in 2024 but stopping short of condemning online conspiracists. “Everybody has conspiracy theories,” says Tim, “ideas about the world that are unproven, but are quite likely to be true. That’s how we build up our picture of the world. And to believe there is a conspiracy by government is a totally appropriate response, because we’ve found again and again there have been.” Hence he plays reporter rather than judge in the song; after all, he’ll whole-heartedly endorse the conspiracy theory that “the CIA killed the Kennedys, there was a coup in America in the Sixties”, and when he sings “my UFO’s landing soon” he means it.

When the modern world gets too much, Yummy advocates heading off-grid. The protagonist of the serene and majestic chorale, beautifully arranged by Mark Hunter, ’Way Over Your Head’, driven to alcoholism by the rat race, yearns for “a simpler life, a spit of land, community”. And the album’s centrepiece ‘Shadow of the Giant’, swelling from a mystical quasi-classical opening into an orchestral gospel groove and featuring piano from John Hopkins, applies the same mentality to the life of the jet-set rock star. “My whole life is in lock-ups and hard-drives, checks-ins and goodbyes, diaries, dates and EasyJet flights,” Tim sings, admitting “I am most happy in these oceanic spaces”.

The giant in question here is left open to interpretation – it may represent our parents, our spirituality or a grander scheme that most of us only briefly glimpse. If there’s a shadow cast over Yummy though, it’s scythe-shaped, but not fearful. For such an eternally youthful band a hyper-charged, ‘Laid’-like banger the ebullient ‘Rogue’ could be a definitive anti-ageism statement that the body may wither but the mind remains forever young. “I’ve been a punk, a saint, a fool, Vishnu,” Tim declares, still full of the vitality of all of his previous lives, and this one; “I’m still mesmerised by cleavage. I won’t come to Jesus’” he admits, and vows “some of us still have work to do”.

“No one really talks about ageism,” Tim argues. “Old people aren’t valued or treated with respect like they would often be as elders in indigenous tribes. When I wrote that lyric, I was imagining someone in their seventies and the anger they must feel in wanting to go rogue and to break out. We know the stereotype of what we should be as we get old and we’re not taking this s***. I’m 63, I stage dive. I dance. Let’s buck the psychology of getting old.”

And, indeed, of drawing back the final curtain. James have written frank, confrontational and often euphoric songs about embracing death before – ‘ZERO’ and ‘Recover’ from All the Colours of You; much of La Petite Mort. But Yummy’s closer ‘Folks’ is undoubtedly their most intriguing of the genre. Put together from the jam by Jim and his half-brother Peter, it’s a warping avant-garde blue-eyed ballad which they imagined being broadcast at us from outer space. “We wanted it to sound like it kept tuning into other songs,” Jim says, “that there was disruption from wherever coming in, but all wrapped up in the warmth and familiarity of a 1950s crooner ballad trying to find its way uninterrupted from the heavens to whoever was listening to it.”

Tim uses this otherworldly backdrop for a tongue-in-cheek slow-dance with the reaper, his answer to Leonard Cohen’s deathbed farewell tune ‘Thanks for the Dance’. “Death’s a fixture, go and kiss her, wear your stories with pride,” he sings, “I’m too old to lie, see you on the other side, I won’t cling on to this life”. “I think most people, even younger people, are aware of their mortality right now in a way that we weren’t 30 years ago,” he says. “The world didn’t look as precariously balanced as it does now. So we’d better start making friends with death because it’s a reality.”

Alongside Yummy, Tim has been turning his lyrical skills to the benefit of literature too. His debut novel When I Died For The First Time – “A dark comedy musing on the music industry, addiction, racism, altered states, creativity and love, written from the point of view of a messed-up singer coming back from rehab” – was published on March 28. After all of those lives, he’s finding new ways to be wise.

James head to the West Midlands on Wednesday, June 12 to headline Birmingham Utilita Arena.

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