With a raft of positive reviews propelling it to No.3 in the British charts, All The Colours Of You is James’s 16th studio album — count ‘em! Clearly on a roll, it’s also the reinvigorated septet’s fourth long-player in five years, following the much lauded Girl At The End Of The World in 2016, Living In Extraordinary Times in 2018, and 2020’s similarly titled live album in 2020.
Such consistency and longevity are rare attributes indeed in the music industry. After Morrissey named them his favourite band in an Eighties interview the world suddenly wanted to know who James were. And although the minstrels of indie enjoyed a moment of proper pop stardom in the 1990s, surfing on the wave of Madchester and Britpop with a hatful of hit singles – the Brian Eno helmed Laid, Beatlesque She’s A Star, the U2-ish Sound, and my personal favourite, the acidly perceptive Destiny Calling — conversely, the band always had a maturity and authenticity that defied any particular musical scene.
“We always consciously stood back from any movements,” loose-limbed frontman Tim Booth told the Herald Scotland a while back. “The Smiths and New Order took us on tour and at first we were lumped in with them. Then there was Madchester. We loved the bands – we took the Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets on tour with us – but we didn’t want to be part of the scene. Then there was Britpop. We realised quite quickly that scenes only last a few years then everyone wants to pickle you in aspic and freeze you in time. We’re not a heritage band – the word ‘heritage’ is like death.”
Funnily enough, it was Caledonian climes where I very randomly bumped into Booth, at what was then the Ingram Hotel in Glasgow city centre in 1991. This was the year when James were riding high with the anthemic Sit Down, which became their signature smash on its second release, an immovable No.2 for six solid weeks, denied the top spot by a pair of ubiquitous film soundtrack songs: Chesney Hawkes’ The One And Only and Cher’s slightly less annoying Shoop Shoop Song.
James were midway through their Seven Autumn Tour and had just played two nights at the famed Glasgow Barrowlands. Apropos of nothing much in particular, I casually mentioned to him that David Bowie was playing there that night, Thursday 7 November.
“Is he?,” asked Booth, suddenly looking animated in the mahogany panelled foyer. “Bowie’s here tonight?”
He looked at his companion, which turned out to be his partner and the band’s manager Martine McDonagh*, now a successful author.
“Shall we go?,” he asked of her. “We do have the night off. We’d have to get a babysitter…”
“Yeah, he’s at the same venue you’ve just vacated,” I replied helpfully. “With Tin Machine.”
And with that addendum they looked slightly less interested when they realised it wasn’t Bowie solo, but that much derided squally rock band he just happened to be a member of. I’ve no idea if they managed to get back to Barrrowlands in the end, though as he was amiable I thought it only right to ask Tim for his autograph… for my younger sister. Not really being much of an autograph person myself I made sure I told him it was “for Stella”.
If I remember rightly he actually signed it “for sister Stella”, so that’s good then.
Thirty years on, the apocalyptic cry of “We’re all gonna die!” begins All The Colours Of You, and the mood is set. Themes throughout continue down musically enhanced paths and rivers of human emotion and life’s struggles, to political standpoints and questions, through grief and the shadow of Covid, from where the album emerged.
Tim Booth has never been an artist to shy away from addressing things others stay away from as the title track delivers a slap-in-the-face realisation of the damage that the orange ogre Trump and his abysmal legacy has left America. Repercussions of his actions continue to incite racial hatred, as Booth poignantly urges: “Love all the colours, all the colours of you”. It’s a bona fide rainbow anthem – and one destined to become a festival favourite as soon as we can start getting back out in the fields again.
Beautiful Beaches is a stunning, stark, haunting tune which tells the story of the devastation the California wildfires had upon the area. The Booth clan were living there at the time, but his subsequent visions of earthquakes convinced him it was time for him and his kin to leave. “That life we left behind, we’re racing down to those beautiful beaches,” he sings. It really is a dramatic imagination-invoking song, which lingers with this particular listener, especially as I also had family in that area of Cali at the time. I wish I still did.
Possibly the hardest song on the album to listen to is Recover, which deals with that most painful of emotions, grief.
Written around the loss of Tim’s own father-in-law to Coronavirus during lockdown, its immaculate crafting alone is enough to bring a tear, let alone the subject matter. The simplicity of Recover shows how Booth et all keep evolving over the decades. James have always kept a finger on the pulse of the current generation, and this album is no exception.
The quirky Miss America is told through the eyes of a beauty queen, about the disintegration of her country’s image. Booth nails it straight to the stars and stripes, and the imposing, poignant lyrics describe so much that has gone wrong with the country that she stands for. Endearingly insightful, and some musical mastery front the Manchester massive. A startling standout is Isabella, with its deliciously gothic undertones and some electronic beats that would make Gary Numan blush, yet it manages to be another soul-rousing anthem.
All The Colours Of You will take you on a rollercoaster of your head space, but you’ll come out the other side feeling uplifted and enlightened. Hopefully it won’t be long before audiences are allowed to hear James bang these out loud and live.
An intoxicating pop bombast more win machine than Tin Machine then. Good.
*In 1993, Martine McDonagh was interviewed by on-off James trumpeter Andy Diagram, though in the following exchange I don’t know if she’s referencing the Tin Machine concert or an earlier Bowie show, as James did support Bowie on his Sound + Vision stadium stop at Maine Road in 1990, which happened to be the reason for my first visit to Manchester.
“There’s nothing I hate more than a band T-shirt that’s just got the album sleeve in a square on the front, really badly printed – it’s just a waste of time. I feel sick when I go to a gig by massive artists like David Bowie or Michael Jackson and they obviously don’t give a damn about what they’re selling – they just want to make some money. I think it’s really unfair -because if people are expected to pay fifteen or twenty quid for something they should be able to want to wear it.”
Oh well, here‘s the band‘s incisive take on Bowie and Iggy‘s China Girl anyhow…