The two minutes of electro-pop riffing that introduce opening track "Bitch" set a tone that, in spite of all of its shimmering studio ear candy, seems built for the stage. Singer Tim Booth's defiant blend of wry grit and lush romanticism remains a hallmark of James' sound as he alternately rhymes "Were you just born an asshole? Rage in exile!" during the feisty chorus of "To My Surprise," before tenderly intoning "Nothing but love is the drug of healing" in the very next song. Highlights like "Attention" and the churning electro-epic "Surfer's Song" rely on massive, intense crescendos that are another James specialty and a sure sign that their collective gears are well-oiled even after several decades playing together. While recurring themes of death and mortality ran through La Petite Mort in a loosely conceptual unity, there are times when Girl at the End of the World seems a little stylistically scattershot and lacking in cohesion. Still, James have always spun a lot of competing self-variations into their music and that range is a part of their lasting appeal. Between this record and its predecessor, their creativity seems to have entered a fertile new phase.
Even on past albums there's usually that adventurous feel, but song-wise they've made a career on one particular chord progression, one that often works spectacularly for them but here has lesser effect on first single "Nothing But Love." Which makes the boldness of the rest of the record that much more refreshing. Instrumentally, opener "Bitch" comes on like Bowie stealing Joy Division for his backing band on Low. The album hits its stride at track six for a strong four-song run that captures and updates the classic spirit of the band. "Feet of Clay" is a lovely acoustic lilt with Tim Booth reflective and just the right side of resigned. "Surfer's Song" and "Catapult" really take off, supercharged, the latter's main riff played as if Ned's Atomic Dustbin were covering "Come Home" (this is a good thing). On both, Booth resolutely sings of the necessity of self-expression. And "Move Down South" continues the triumphant pace with a big expansive stomper. The closing title track is a pleasant enough number but reverts to the more safe James sound, a slight disappointment after the forward-sounding songs of the late middle of the album.