So, what were you doing when you were 19? For most of us mere mortals, the answer to that question would probably involve passing grades in university, beer, and chasing after the opposite sex. For Nottingham-born singer-songwriter Jake Bugg, releasing a widely acclaimed debut album seems to be just another experience of his late teens; yet another experience to be stored in his vault of seemingly inexhaustible stories. Bugg’s sound has been described as having traces of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Donovan, and, at times, even that most adulated of the Fab Four, John Lennon.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking that Bugg is nothing more than the sum of his influences, though. His sound is genuine, and all his songs sound as though he’s drawn them from his own personal experiences. A piece of
advice that more or less all aspiring writers have received at one point or another in their lives is “write about something that you know”, and Jake Bugg seems to have taken that advice to heart. His self-titled debut album brings the rock ‘n roll, slightly folky sound of the 1960s back to the millennial generation. Upon second (and third, and fourth) listen, I’ve even found touches of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the La’s in Bugg’s sound – in fact, the first time I heard one of Bugg’s songs, I thought the La’s had reunited.
Don’t mistake Bugg for some wide-eyed, sentimental pretty-boy, though. He’s got quite a mouth on him, having insulted acts such as Leona Lewis, and One Direction, and even going so far as to disparagingly dismiss Mumford and Sons as “posh farmers with banjos” in an interview for The
Guardian. Despite this, you get a sense that Bugg isn’t just another teen diva, with a fame-fueled inflated ego. He knows exactly how much he is worth to his audience, and he refuses to undersell himself. Judging by his excellent debut album, he might just have a very good reason for feeling slightly superior compared to his musical peers.
The first track on the album, ‘Lightning Bolt’, could (in my opinion) easily be the opening song on a soundtrack to an indie movie. Just picture some manic-pixie-dream-girl starlet (let’s go with Zooey Deschanel, for old time’s sake) in a Wes Anderson or Scott Neustadter film, puttering about the house, early one morning. The track marries Bob Dylan-esque rock ‘n roll
aesthetics with a more modern ethos. At some points, it almost takes on nuances of The Libertines, with grungy, urgent guitar riffs and solos. It’s likely that ‘Lightning Bolt’ served as most people’s first exposure to Bugg’s music, and with good reason. This song perfectly encapsulates a large part of his style and mannerisms.
‘Two Fingers’ sounds sincerely autobiographical, almost like a homecoming of sorts. It has a distinctly ‘60s rock feel, even vaguely reminiscent of early Beatles songs. It’s tinged with nostalgia, and presents its listeners with lyrics like “I go back to Clifton to see my old friends / The best people I could ever have met / Skin up a fat one, hide from the Feds”. It’s lyrics like these that make you feel as though you’re engaged in a conversation with Jake about his youth, dissecting his nostalgic feelings for times past.
On the album’s third track, ‘Taste It‘ (and no, that’s not an indecent innuendo), I find myself hearing echoes of Dylan’s ‘Tombstone Blues‘ (albeit with a different subject matter). There are jubilant explosions of distortion
and raucous singing that gives the track a sort of freeing, idyllic feel. There’s a very strong classic rock ‘n roll influence on this track, and you could easily picture Bugg performing at Gazzarri’s, or Whisky A Go Go, or any of the other legendary musical proving grounds of decades past.
‘Simple as This’ is slightly reminiscent of Donovan, with very slight traces of country/folk influences in the acoustic guitar part. Although this track might sound a little twee, it remains in authentic, heartfelt territory, stopping just short of becoming a Hallmark Cards ad song (not that Hallmark wouldn’t try to shanghai the track to further their own, devious greeting card selling ends).
‘Country Song’ is yearning and deeply melancholy. Out of all the tracks on this album, this one sounds the most like a Bob Dylan/Donovan love child. Phrases like “Gonna sing you an old country song / So I can cry your name
and call you when I’m sad” might sound a little over the top, but they only serve to highlight the yearning in this song. It’s a quiet and emotional piece that makes the listener feel as if they’re intruding on a sort of lovers’ confession. I admire the how Bugg manages to turn a track that could have easily slid into kitsch territory into something that most listeners would probably like their significant other to sing to them.
‘Broken’ is one of the few tracks that sound truly Bugg’s. Sure, you could compare it to other artists, however, here, midway through the album, Bugg shows himself able to write a song of such beauty and elegance that has, at its core, his own personal sound. You don’t have to go running to Dylan or Cash for reference. Jake Bugg is most definitely at the helm of his own style. Soaring melodies, and an almost religious atmosphere pervade this song, making it truly the high point of the album.
‘Trouble Town’ is easily one of my favourite tracks. It sounds like quintessential, vintage Dylan, or more accurately Johnny Cash (something slightly reminiscent of Cash’s ‘Rusty Cage’). Vocals that have a sort of faux-78-rpm feel about them (as though sung through an old timey transistor radio), add to the illusion of having traveled beck to a time when music was good, and comics cost twelve cents. It even contains some slightly wailed vocals, that would be worthy of any good Dylan album.
When listening to ‘Ballad of Mr. Jones‘ it’s almost impossible to believe that this song had nothing to do with Dylan’s song ‘Ballad of a Thin Man‘ (whose protagonist’s name is actually Mr. Jones). While titles and allusions are debatable, Bugg’s sound is actually dissimilar from Dylan’s. The comparisons start and end at the song’s title. ‘Ballad’ is a tale of revenge, with a bit of Western flavouring thrown into the mix. The melodic accompaniment is actually a little reminiscent of the minor key, country ballads that tell similar tales of revenge (think Johnny Cash’s ‘God’s Gonna
Cut You Down’, but with Dylan-esque vocals and a more western tinge).
‘Slide’ sounds almost disturbingly reminiscent of the Fleet Foxes‘ sound (I offer ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’, from the Foxes‘ self-titled debut album, as Exhibit A). Bugg’s vocals are wide open, and there is plenty of reverb to paint a musical portrait of lyrics, such as “’Cause you and and me on this frozen sea we slide, slide . . .”. It feels almost as though we’ve taken a vacation from the rest of the album, sailing freely over wintery scenery, with nary a worry about regret, heartbreak, and nostalgia.
In ‘Note to Self’ I can’t help myself from noticing some rather obvious Donovan influences. Bugg’s voice sounds eerily reminiscent of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s heartfelt, sometimes mystical vocals. The song’s
touching lyrics, and heartwarming optimism advise its nameless subject to love and accept herself, and to let the great world spin around her without paying too much attention to its criticism.
‘Fire’ sounds a bit little like a bonus track. It has a sort of faux reggae sound that Rolling Stone aptly compared to “A Devendra Banhart outtake”. This is sort of an odd track, that sounds kinda like it began (and possibly ended) life as a little experiment of Bugg’s. Nevertheless, it’s a fun little addition to a very strong album.
As with all excellent albums, my little quibbles and gripes are somewhat irrelevant. Many readers will probably disagree vehemently with this section, and rightly so, since any perceived defects that the songs might have, are far outweighed by the genuinely great material in this album. One thing I was a little disappointed about was the fact that some songs seemed somewhat short (hooray for alliteration!). ‘Lightning Bolt‘, for example, simply seems to end just when I was getting into the swing of the track. All of the songs on this album are about two or three minutes in length (except for ‘Broken‘ that clocks in at four minutes and seven seconds), and I feel as though more could have been gotten out of the album if the songs were slightly longer. It’s somewhat frustrating to start letting a song wash through your ears, only to have it end, shortly after you were just getting into it.
Another small quibble of mine is that Bugg sometimes seems a little too world weary for a 19-year-old. This is obviously just a personal impression,
however it seems to me that Bugg is trying to play the nostalgic, wise man, while at the same time embodying the somewhat reckless, and naïve boy, just out of his teens.
Aside from these gripes, I also feel that the track ‘Someone Told Me’ sounds a little flat. It almost sounds like Bugg ran out of steam a bit by this point, and some of the lyrics sound a little over contrite, and ever-so-slightly pretentious. In addition, the music just sort of circles around, not really taking the song anywhere. I realize that there are probably people out there for whom this is the best track on the album, but for me it just didn’t take me anywhere.
For more Jake Bugg, visit jakebugg.com