La Petite Mort is James 14th album, and the 4th since reforming in 2007 following Tim Booth’s temporary departure. It’s part of a second era for James, distinguished by a change from songs that emerged through lengthy jam sessions to a more standard song-writing method. And so these later albums have a different feel to the chaotic early years, but all the lyrics are still the sole work of Booth, and themes and feelings are shared with all points in their career.
The phase documented on the album is front and centre: both Booth’s mother and his best friend passed away in the last few years, as did Doris Lessing, the third woman he credits here for his inspiration. The album deals with the pain felt both during and after such partings. It also ponders what comes after life, and even beyond that.
The phrase ‘la petite mort’ also means a release (of, ahem, all kinds) and a part of us ‘dying inside’ after a particularly moving event. So the album could be viewed also as a psychological marker in James’s life, a document of where they are today. Indeed, on six minute pounding opener ‘Walk Like You’, Booth threatens “Welcome to our coming of age, to embrace all that we’ve become”. But then again every James album feels like a coming of age, a document of the band’s (or at least the singer’s) growth and development as human beings.
If Walk Like Me is a reminder of who you really are (‘We’re made of stars//we’re made of dirt) second track Curse Curse is a nightclub-anthemic abandonment of responsibility (‘Two shots more tequila//Raise the flames to fever’). Combine these two tracks and you lay out all of James’s approaches to life and death: it’s earthly, it’s magical, but just get on with it.
Moving On is the stand-out track of the album, and the second single from it. It’s a lesson in, well, precisely that. The Jamesian twist here is the point of view: we’re being simultaneously reassured and implored by the soon-to-be-deceased himself – ‘I’m on my way, leave a light on’. The narrator questions what’s to come (‘Will this cycle start again//will we recognise old friends?’), and lays bare their hopes and fears (‘When my pulse beats slow//hope to have you close at hand’). Musically it’s a euphoric statement, a heartbreaking moment soundtracked by signature James trumpets, reminiscent more than any other recent offerings of 1992′s soaring, religion-musing album Seven. It feels appropriate.
Frozen Britain was the first single, and fits the category of ‘live for today, for tomorrow we…?’ Through dance, and possibly other strenuous activity (this is James, after all), Booth hopes to ‘wake the dead’, ‘escape the coffin’. Again the spirit is uplifting, a drum-and-guitar-driven pop affirmation in the face of the inevitable.
Frozen Britain is followed by the start of the come-down. The second half of La Petite Mort is in parts angry, bitter, resentful, remorseful. Interrogation is self-blame, a thudding, panicked cry over rasping sinister electronic noise. The jury retire mid-song, only to return a dramatic and cymbal-laden verdict of guilt based on the singer’s own testimony. It’s the indictment of a singer forever blaming others in his lyrics, only to find the crimes closer to home. Life’s too short for this nailing of others, he rues, and the following track, Bitter Virtue, is the slower, sadder elegy for a misspent (or unspent) life. It’s not anger but incredulity: ‘compress a life til life expires//I’d rather live in sin… how can you sit on everything?’.
James have always been about life lessons, reminding you that they’ve been there too, and first (‘those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me’). This feeling pervades La Petite Mort. But in contrast to older albums content to whisper such reassurances in your ear, this latest offering feels compelled to pound it into you via the drums and piano which underlie everything. Perhaps the singer is simply overcome with the need to let you know what’s going on; there’s rarely much of a let-up between the albums opening bars and Interrogation half way through. The aforementioned Bitter Virtue brings the tempo down for the first time.
Of the final tracks, All in My Mind admits that the dead don’t stay down – they’re here with us all the time, for good or ill. On Quicken the Dead, with it’s piano arpeggio and insistent vocals, we’re reminded that life is not a choice, and neither is death (‘Breathing’s so crude… press-ganged to get here’). We’re living life on borrowed time.
We’re brought to the end by All I’m Saying, which in its very title suggests that we’ve been listening to a lecture on the topic of death, but finally we’re going to get the bare facts. It’s a simple song, starting off with guitar strums and spare piano notes before raising the tempo in one final push. Here, at last, the singer is straight-talking with the deceased, a son at a graveside. But this isn’t a moment for saying what should have been said before. This is a confession of the here and now: ‘missing you… meeting you in a dream tonight’. It’s mourning, laying to rest, a counter-viewpoint to ‘Moving On’ and an open question about what happens afterwards, the ghostly, vocodered ‘all I’m saying, I love you, see you next time.’