James ‘Be Opened By The Wonderful Album review by Rob Johnson

Manchester legends James have long been a band that defies definition. They have survived through baggy, shoe gaze, Britpop, indie landfill, and everything in between and yet they still find themselves selling out huge venues and releasing critically acclaimed albums. Be Opened by the Wonderful – the band’s latest record – is an opportunity to pause and reflect on everything the band has achieved. Rather than a straightforward greatest hits album, Be Opened… instead finds Tim Booth and co. casting an eye back across their entire back catalogue, rarities and all, to produce a compilation that acts as a sonic compendium of the band’s entire career – re-recorded and reimagined with a 22-piece orchestra and eight-piece choir.

The double album collection kicks off with classic single ‘Sometimes’, a song that has soundtracked every drunken evening in the north of England for over three decades. No other lyric on this album quite hits like ‘sometimes when I look deep in your eyes I swear I can see your soul’. Massive. 

James is a band that has never been interested in following trends and new track ‘Love Make a Fool’ trades in the same motifs of big concepts and big choruses that they have always lingered on. For a band celebrating their 40th anniversary, it is striking how relevant they still sound. 

James’ eighth studio album Millionaires has always been underrated and ‘We’re Going to Miss You’ marks one of three contributions across this collection that serve as a reminder of the overall quality of that record. When everyone else was arguing about Blur and Oasis, the real outsiders were sitting in their bedrooms cowering in dark corners listening to Pulp and James albums. ‘Tomorrow’ is one of the reasons why. So many hooks. So much melody. And what a chorus.

Originally released as a B-side to the 1993 megahit ‘Laid’ (more on that later), ‘The Lake’ is a live favourite and its easy to see why with the slow build reminiscent of New Order’s ‘Temptation’ but filtered through Booth’s unique worldview. 

Elsehwere, the iconic piano intro to ‘She’s a Star’ never gets old, the same goes for Booth’s piercing falsetto vocal on that same track, and ‘Lookaway’ is another welcome obscurity beloved by fans that finds Booth in ruminative mood reflecting “I pretend I know where I’m going, I pretend I know where I’m from” – it’s a typically frank and reflective statement from a songwriter who prefers broad strokes over specifics. Luckily, the universality of the lyrics matches the mass appeal of the music.

Whilst not the band’s best song, if James has a mission statement, it is surely ‘Sit Down’. Oversaturation simply cannot rob the Manchester band’s most successful single of its raw power. It’s still incredibly moving and inspirational all these years later. 

The second half of this collection kicks off with the contemplative ‘Someone’s Got It in for Me’ from the Brian Eno produced 1999 album Millionaires and it still sounds great complete with soaring strings and Booth’s tortured vocals. “Hey Ma” marked the band’s triumphant return after reuniting in 2007 and it is striking how quickly they returned to business as usual – pounding drums, yearning lyrics and, of course, a singalong chorus. “Hello” is perhaps the most atypical track on this collection which sees Booth whispering a mostly improvised lyric over a haunting, introspective piano track. Protest song “Why So Close” is also an odd choice for this record as it is mostly acapella but it also adds a welcome element of sonic variation. ‘Medieval’ is one of the oldest tracks on the album and certainly the only one to feature a flute, and while the twee lyrics have perhaps dated a little, it is still a powerful and jaunty number. 

Classic single ‘Hymn from a Village’ doesn’t quite work with the additional musicians but both ‘Say Something’ and a stripped-down ‘Laid’ are particularly effective here – the latter providing the perfect bookend to what is a timeless collection of songs. 

It is clear from this latest album that James have no intention of slowing down. It will be fascinating to see where they go from here. 

The album is available now across all DSPs here.

Comments are closed.