After having become superstars in the U.K. with songs like "Sit Down" and then undergone an acoustic American tour opening for Neil Young, James took a consciously quieter, subtler turn with its follow-up to Seven, Laid. This turned out not merely to be a nice way to undercut expectations, but a creative benchmark for the group, arguably its artistic peak. While there had always been a folky, rushed element to the band's work in its earliest days, the now-sextet, following the departure of trumpet Andy Diagram to concentrate on the Spaceheads, here focused instead on understated, moody compositions. Part of this approach no doubt had something to do with Brian Eno's production work, and certainly it's another feather in his cap. While his work with U2 combined with James' own seeming assumption of that band's throne in big rock terms could have resulted in The Joshua Tree redux, that didn't prove to be the case. Admittedly, a couple of songs are specifically aimed at arena-level singalongs, including lead single "Sometimes," which almost drowns under its own weight and speed, and the title track, a celebration of love and lust that ended up giving the band a surprise stateside radio hit. But Tim Booth generally avoids Bono's melodramatics in both hushed and soaring mode, his ruminative singing sounding more like the calm reflections after energetic action, the band's quiet soundscapes a perfect combination of Eno's ear for space and vastness and the group's own abilities. Strong tracks are legion, including "One of the Three," allegedly about British hostages in Lebanon but much more accurately a sharp, harrowing meditation on Jesus and apparently meaningless sacrifice, and the low-key beauties of "Out to Get You" and "Knuckle Too Far." But the best punch is right at the end -- the heartbreaking "Lullaby," a piano-led sigh of regret and wistful hope, and "Skindiving," Booth's near-wordless keen at his most affecting, floating over the low-volume shuffle and bite of the band. ~ Ned Raggett, Rovi
Track samples provided courtesy of iTunes
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