I recently picked up the latest CD by the band James, "Hey Ma". With the help of Brian Eno they made one of my favourite albums of the 90's ("Laid" - 1993). They dropped off my radar for a number of years, though so far the new album seems engaging enough. Tim Booth appears a little angrier in this incarnation, and on the title track he rages against the war machine;
Now the towers have fallen
So much dust in the air
It affected your vision
Couldn't see yourself clear
From the fall came such choices
Even worse than the fall
There's this chain of consequences...
Hey ma the boy's in body bags
Coming home in pieces
He also includes the obligatory mid-life reassessment on "Waterfall" where he ponders his mortality, "My mirrors laughing at me, says boy are you getting old/There’s so much junk in your life what you’ve got you don’t even know" and takes the necessary assessment of what is important in life; "Of mobile phones and plasma screens/How much junk in my life do I really need?".
Interestingly, in this age of the lowest common denominator reigning supreme via 24/7 YouTube and reality TV, the album cover caused some controversy in the UK, resulting in the cover being banned from being placed on billboards or adverts. Thankfully, the band decided not to change the album cover, and the artist Darren Hughes issued this statement;
"You need only to have a passing acquaintance with the headlines to be aware of the unfolding horror show of gun culture amongst kids in the UK. Whilst the media are quick to show condemnation.... we seem less able, less curious to raise the vital question, as to what has brought our country, our culture our kids to be so taken with guns?"
It made me think of another album cover from a lesser known 90's album, "Delaware" by the Drop Nineteens (1992). Although slightly contrived, the image of an earthy looking indie kid dangling a gun is both engaging and mildly unsettling due to its capacity to hint at the possibility of violence even from the most seemingly innocuous of sources.
Although the Drop Nineteens were not a political band by any stretch of the imagination, the album cover is striking and stands out as one of my favourites. I remember being so engaged by the cover that I picked up the album when it first came out, knowing very little about the band. Such is the power of captivating art.
In many ways I am glad that artists like James are still willing to make bold statements and are blatantly questioning the dominant paradigm. As long as there are artists prepared to do this my faith in the human spirit will remain unfettered. Also, I hope that as music becomes more predominately digital and less tangible, that the album art will somehow remain a vital component of music, adding a another necessary dimension to the dissemination of ideas in our crazy world.