The first thing that strikes you about listening to James' Living in Extraordinary Times -- the Manchester alt-rock outfit's 15th studio album -- is how mean it sounds. Opener "Hank" comes growling out of the gate, with grungy bass and hammering drums, as the distorted voice of frontman James Booth sneers about "white fascists in the White House" and asserts on the chorus, "Bend your knee, stand your ground."
This isn't how albums from bands over 35 years into their career are supposed to sound. But James isn't an ordinary legacy band, and as their new LP title reminds us, these aren't ordinary days.
While James are mostly remembered in the U.S. for '90s alternative hits like the censor-baiting yodel-along "Laid" and the anthemic (and recently Game of Thrones-boosted) "Sit Down," in their home country, the outfit has had a decades-long arc that saw them grow from John Peel favorites of the '80s underground to '90s pop superstars to, now, one of the U.K.'s most esteemed veteran touring acts. They still sell, too -- not only live, where they often play to larger crowds than they did in the '90s, but on the U.K. charts, where 2016's Girl at the End of the World debuted at No. 2, held off only by Adele's 25.
"We've always been very hungry to still be creative and relevant, rather than a heritage band," Booth tells Billboard over the phone. "We have survived a long time, and people don’t often make one of the best albums of their lives after 34 years -- and [Living in Extraordinary Times] is probably one of the best albums of our lives -- but we’ve always wanted that longevity."
That hunger is evident on Extraordinary Times, both from the album's sound and its lyrical content. Produced by newcomer Beni Giles and Charlie Andrew (a regular Alt-J collaborator), the album's grimy, funky sonics build on the band's strengths both as road warriors and as a jam-oriented studio band. "We improvise every song and then we take it away and edit them and get a vague song structure and then work on it from there," the singer explains. "And I basically said to him, 'Can you fuck these up, and fuck up the rhythm?...' And yeah, he fucked them up good this time."
But of course, Booth & Co. were further inspired by the real-world decay they've noticed in the years since the last album, particularly happening overseas. "I've only written maybe eight political songs in my life out of like 250 or whatever," he relates. "But there have been times when it's been really clear that you just don't have any choice. It's just the only thing you want to write." While President Trump was originally a pervasive presence on the album, the band later edited it down until he only appeared in the lyrics to a handful of songs, including the furious "Hank" and the more tender "Many Faces," about the president's wall-building and general prejudice. "He's such a black hole, you know? I think the whole media gets sucked towards him -- and I didn't want our album to become a Trump album."
As topical as the album is for much of its runtime, Booth still finds time for the personal -- as on "Coming Home, Pt. 2," a sequel to the band's 1989 single "Come Home." Both versions of the song find Booth ruminating on strains in his relationships with his sons, but while the '89 one was focused on Booth's guilt over splitting up with his older son's mother, the new one expresses remorse to the younger one for missed birthdays and Father's Days while on the road. "When I was singing that song in the video, I would FaceTime my 14 year old just so I could look in his face just before I start a take," Booth says. "When he looked at the video, he found it hard to watch."
And as much of Trump's toxicity still appears on Extraordinary Times, Booth insists the album was titled to reflect not only the cynicism of this moment, but also the progress of so much of the response to it. "Trump has brought to the surface the poison that was already there," he explains. "These are extraordinary times rather than negative, dark, awful times because it's also bringing [to the forefront] Black Lives Matter, the kids in Florida, the Women's Marches." The frontman also finds promise in current pop music being made by Beyoncé and Childish Gambino -- even calling the latter's explosive "This Is America" visual "probably the best video that I’ve nearly ever seen" -- but worries about what he calls the "post-Simon Cowell" effect of over-singing, as well as a general tendency towards celebrity-seeking, among younger artists. "I hope it's going to be a swing back to people making music for the hell of it, and telling everyone to fuck off," he comments.
Such a statement might come with more authority from Booth than other older musicians, as James remains one of the few British bands able to compete on the commercial level of today's international pop stars. But though Girl at the End of the World became the group's fourth album to peak at No. 2, they've still yet to hit No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart with one of their original LPs. (The group's The Best Of compilation did top the chart in 1998.) So does Booth like his chances of Extraordinary Times becoming the first?
"No -- I think the Mamma Mia [Here We Go Again] soundtrack comes out next week," he says, laughing. "And I think the rapper who is with one of the Jenners is releasing an album. So I doubt it."