Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
On November 18, 1991, I was a little over two months into my freshman year of college and I wasn’t having a great time of it. School itself was going OK, but I was not fitting in at all with my obnoxious roommates. I missed my girlfriend, who was back home. I was also, generally speaking, feeling down and blue and gloomy. I didn’t realize it at the time and wouldn’t for years, but I was going through a depressive episode, the likes of which I’ve experienced on and off since I was 16. It was just a bad time all around.
An album helped lift my spirits.
Bruce Springsteen has an autobiography coming out. In a recent interview, he talked about how he reconciles his blue collar, Jersey shore past and the hundreds of songs he has written about all of that with the privileged life those songs and his wealth have allowed him to live for half of his life:
“Whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you. I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”
That’s a pretty amazing and profound insight. A simple one, simply put, that somehow eludes almost all of us when it comes to considering who we are as people compared to who we used to be, in fear of who we may become.
That Springsteen may yet make something of himself. He’s a pretty good writer.