Unfortunately, reality has an annoying tendency to prove you wrong, and this second offering from the Nottingham, U.K.-born singer-songwriter does seem to succumb to many of the flaws that habitually plague sophomore albums. The release of this second album actually surprised me, since I was expecting at least two or three years to pass before we heard anything new from the young rising star. However, Bugg has apparently decided to release new albums with the almost yearly regularity with which Infinity Ward release their flagship video game franchise Call of Duty.
Unfortunately, you can tell that this album was rushed, and in another stunning similarity to the COD gaming franchise, it contains very much the same content as the previous album. The mean streets of Clifton are still just as mean as ever, lovers are still heartbroken, and Bugg still seems to occupy a place on his own, his personal Mount Olympus, from where he observes, comments, and judges the mean streets below him. Don’t get me wrong, though, Shangri-La is an album well worth buying (I mean, how’s Bugg supposed to pay for his – I’m assuming – Malibu mansion? By working?)
It still has the same Jake Bugg, Dylan-meets-Cash sound (for better or worse), and now it seems that Bugg has acquired a few new acts to add to the long, long list of artists to which he is routinely compared. Oasis, the Arctic Monkeys, and even Noel Gallagher make a distorted, shadowy, and ultimately unfulfilling appearance in Bugg’s sound. So, is this second album cursed by mediocrity and a rushed release date? Well, let’s find out.
‘There’s a Beast and We All Feed It’ is our first introduction to Bugg’s new album, and from its wordy, fast-paced delivery, we get the impression that Bugg wants to get back to the conversation he started in his first album as quickly as possible. The track is almost like a throwback to the days of the raggedy British skiffle bands that gave us artists like Jimmy Page. The song takes aim squarely at Twitter, and (seemingly) social media in general. That’s the “beast”, and say what we will about it, we all feed it with our comments, opinions, and ubiquitous pictures of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and sundry other repasts (seriously, if I see one more Instagram picture of someone’s bowl of noodles, I might just gag the person closest to me with my phone). Lyrics such as “They grin but they don’t mean it / They sing but they don’t feel it” leave no question as to what Bugg thinks about our “second life” on the ‘net. Everything is glossy, over-processed, and thoroughly insincere (the commentary, not the song itself), and even the fast pace of the track paints a sonic picture of the frantic nature of our online interactions.
‘Slumville Sunrise’ seems to flow breathlessly out of ‘Beast’, maintaining the former’s fast pace, and rockabilly aesthetic. On this track you get a sense that the titular “Slumville” is a reference to his native Clifton roots, and it seems to wholeheartedly celebrate his “escape” from this “nowhere-ville”. Music-wise, the fast paced drums-and-distorted-guitar template seems quite straightforward (maybe even disappointingly so). The onus seems to be placed on the lyrics, which are delivered with a Gallagherian nasality, that delights but, at times, also slightly annoys.
‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is the third track in a row to be (quite literally) thrown at the listener’s head, and one might find one’s self (understandably) exhausted by this point. Bugg frantically shoves a snapshot of wronged people and painful experiences into our faces, and proceeds to advise us that “what doesn’t kill you” . . . apparently does . . . something or other. I’m assuming that it makes you stronger, or something (Jake seems somewhat reticent to finish his ideas on this track). Again, the music is nothing to write home about. Like the first three tracks, it’s a sort of Oasis-ish, Arctic Monkeys-inspired background noise. It grabs a hold of your head, and shoves you ears first into Bugg’s lyrics, which serve up the same daily dose of pain and grievances, that make you wonder: “Just how bad is Clifton, anyway, and why, oh why, do I have to keep hearing about it?”
‘Me and You‘ is next up, and we are finally allowed some breathing room. The contrast between the first three tracks feels, in all honesty, almost like slamming the brakes a little too hard on your car. This track is a straightforward love song, that seems to return to Bugg’s standard I-love-you-my-dear-and-we’re-special love song format. To be honest, this is the first track that I honestly enjoyed on this album. It’s not to say that the first three tracks aren’t eminently listenable. Bugg still wails like a Bob Dylan clone, but this time it sound heartfelt, and authoritative, and for once, I can actually understand what the hell he’s saying (I mean seriously, there’s wailing, and then there’s “what hell is this bellend singing, anyway?”).
‘Messed Up Kids” is finally something new from Bugg (relatively speaking). He’s no longer complaining about the mean streets (well, not directly, anyway), choosing instead to analyze the many ways in which children are . . . well . . . messed up. The track serves up lyrics such as “The messed up kids are on the corner / With no money / They sell their time they sell their drugs / They sell their body”, with wailing that (oddly) reminded me of Shirley Bassey singing ‘Goldfinger’ (make of that what you will).
In ‘A Song About Love‘, Bugg’s vocals soar to dizzying heights, lending the song (another love song, by the way) a touch of heartfelt empathy. Despite this, both the music and the lyrics occasionally slip into platitudes that one might expect from songs by lesser artists. This is not to say that the listener can’t take this track at face value, and thoroughly enjoy it. It might just be that today’s generation (myself included) are too cynical for lyrics like: “I hold you and your eyes fall down / You barely even make a sound / Crying in the peaceful night / Showing all the things you hide”.
‘Pine Trees’ sees Bugg return to the sound of his first album, to great effect. Contemplative acoustic accompaniment, soft, authentic lyrics – everything that was great about the first album makes a return appearance on this track, which is probably my favourite on this album. The quiet shading chord changes of Bugg’s guitar, along with vocals that stop with the needless wailing (not that Bugg doesn’t wail in this song), all make this track excellently re-listenable. It Buggs the question (. . . yeah, that was bad), where has this sound been hiding all this time?
‘Simple Pleasures‘ manages to hold on to the sound that Bugg “rediscovered” on ‘Pine Trees’. Listeners can finally relax, and enjoy Bugg’s newfound country, slightly twangy sound (a product of his Nashville writing sessions) in peace. While the delivery of some lines kinda Buggs me (. . . still nothing?), I’m willing to ignore any gripes I might have with this track. Bugg finally seems to have returned to what he does best: write heartfelt, well-structured songs. It’s too bad that he seems to have remembered his own sound a few tracks before the end of the album, which arrives with the next track.
So, here we are, back in classic Bugg-sounding-like-Dylan territory. ‘Storm Passes Away‘ has a blatantly Nashville sound, and thankfully, that works in Bugg’s favour. Genuinely heartfelt and touching, this song feels like one of the few tracks on this album that Bugg wrote for himself, and not for the sake of putting another record out. Twangy guitar and vocals almost remind me of Harry McClintock’s ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘ (of Coen Brothers, O Brother, Where Art Thou fame), granted with a more serious tone. It is a testament to Bugg’s songwriting abilities that this song can emulate so thoroughly, and satisfyingly the Nashville sound, if only as a closer to this enjoyable, but ultimately slightly disappointing second album.
I like this album. Let’s just get that out of the way, before you guys tar and feather me. The problems that I do have with this album, though, aren’t small by any stretch of the imagination.
The first three songs sound as though Bugg just said, “Alright, I’m going to write three really fast, distorted songs, and then throw them at my listeners one after another, after another, after another, to convince them that I’m f**king serious.” While I honestly like the first three songs, I’m not really impressed. It sounds more like bad track spacing and placement, rather than an actual musical statement. It gives the listener a hurried feeling (further cementing critics’ claims that the album itself was rushed), and it also gives the false impression that the whole album will maintain the same sound and pacing. This problem is actually reflected in the whole track listing of this album. You could almost cut it down the middle, and separate it into six fast tracks, and six slow-ish tracks. Maybe that’s what Bugg was going for; however, I find that hard to believe after the almost perfect pacing and balance of his first album.
Another problem that I had with the album was that a lot of the songs contain some unhealthy levels of platitude. In addition, Bugg doesn’t seem to have left the space he inhabited in his first album, thematically speaking. The subject matter is more or less the same ol’ song and dance about how people are broken, and how Clifton is a s*it-hole. I get it. You’re happy you got out, now for the love of Hendrix, would you please, please move on.
‘Kingpin’ just sounds like poor songwriting. The lyrics sound amateurish, at best, and grossly clichéd, at worst. Bugg thoroughly inhabits Elvis-space here, minus the King’s voice, which might have just made the weak lyrics palatable (I mean, let’s be honest, the man wrote a song about shoes, and it became a classic).
When I heard the first few chords of ‘Kitchen Table’ (with their moody, alt. rock minor twang), I really, really wanted to like this track. Unfortunately, while the music might be really listenable, the lyrics ultimately land this track on the bad side of this review. Lyrics like “You’ll be with the rest of the lonely people / Ones who live in a cold dark place / Sometimes it’s better just to run then to face the pain,” are just about as trite and clichéd as the phrase “it’s not you, it’s me”. It strays dangerously close to emo territory, and I know for a fact that Bugg is better than that.
For more on Jake Bugg, visit jakebugg.com.