When I first heard “La Petite Mort”, I thought, “Blimey, it’s almost like James have released a Killers album”. My immediate, rather scathing, second thought was “They’ve done a much better a job of it than The Killers, too”. Personal bitchiness aside, all was explained when I saw that the producer was Max Dingel, the engineer behind many of the Las Vegas band’s albums from “Sam’s Town” onwards. Still, this record is unmistakeably James and such a glittering pop direction is nothing new for the band. “Millionaires”, for example, has more sheen on it than Eric Pickles’ forehead in a heatwave and there is an uplifting, euphoric indie-pop feel to much of the album. Indeed, the title “La Petite Mort” may be literally translated into “the little death” and that fact that Tim Booth lost his Mother and friend within a short space of time means that death and mortality are poignant subject matters on this album, but it is also more widely known in France as a euphemism for an orgasm, or the post-orgasmic state, and there are plenty of moments of sonic tension and climax to mirror the double-meaning of the record’s knowing title. It all results in a nicely balanced and varied piece of work with plenty of depth and texture. Admittedly, the more upbeat moments of the album steer very close to commercial pop, too close, some of the more guitar-indie disciples might say, but I’m not going to condemn the band for striving for a contemporary feel. It’s the kind of decision where they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That is the problem with being a band who have been in the business as long as James have.
There are several rather brilliant tracks on the album which make “La Petite Mort” such an engaging, enjoyable piece of work. “Curse Curse”, for example, is a helping of synth-heavy electrifying dance music which surely makes a lyrical reference to “Laid” in the first verse. The “Pour me more tequila” chorus could realistically make it a massive summer club hit and give James their first big chart hit in a while. Oddly enough, it’s the type of music that I normally wouldn’t choose to listen to, but everything about it just makes me love it. The mixture of dark, tortured and hedonistic lyrics, the throbbing synths raining down on the beats and Tim’s superb vocal delivery; utterly irresistible. “Moving On”, with the lyrics dealing with mourning countered by the rather uplifting music, is a classic James track with a very catchy chorus and the rippling arpeggios of “Quicken The Dead” give an instant gratification to a song that simply grows in stature each time you hear it. Perhaps the track I love most of all is “All In My Mind”. It begins with a bare piano and vocal but the big metaphor-laden chorus explodes like rays of sunlight breaking through oppressive cloud. It’s a relatively simple song, but truly glorious all the same.
Although those four songs are my absolute choice tracks, it would be doing the record an utter disservice to insinuate that songs like seven-minute opener “Walk Like You”, the life-affirming “Frozen Britain”, or self-damning “Interrogation” were anything less than excellent. Not everything on offer here hits the heady heights of the album’s best moments, but there are very few songs that you could say were merely ordinary and certainly none you could call duds. All-in-all, “La Petite Mort” is a intelligent, thought-provoking, very human celebration of both life and death, managing to tackle some very painful issues whilst avoiding morbidity or being at all depressing. Quite the opposite, in fact. The production also allows James to sound fresh and up-to-date without any real risk of them facing charges of being the musical equivalent of mutton being dressed up as lamb. For a group who released their first album just under thirty years ago, that’s not bad at all. I have to confess, I’ve never been a die-hard James fan. I wasn’t as enamoured with “Hey Ma” as much as many people were, for example, and out of the twelve albums they have released previously I can honestly say that only three get regular outings on my stereo system, but this terrific album has increased my admiration for the band substantially and will takes its place alongside “Gold Mother”, “Laid” and “Millionaires” as one of my James all-time favourites.
“La Petite Mort” by James is available now on Cooking Vinyl records.
Andy Sweeney, 11th July, 2014.