Long before James Bay was selling out the nation’s venues and picking up BRIT awards, he could be found vying for people’s ears at open mic nights, or soundtracking their shopping while busking in Brighton. Those situations intensify one’s isolation, and have been known to break lesser souls, but as a building ground for aspiring songwriters, it’s a fertile arena for developing one’s ability to connect.
Clearly someone who’s comfortable with such intimacy, it’s when James demonstrates that close familiarity that he truly shines on ‘Chaos And The Calm’. Whether it’s through his confessional lyrics, which wrestle with the hopes and regrets of escaping a small town, or the starker, emotional songs of yearning, there’s an entrusting core that must be, for him, liberating, and is, for the listener, heartwarming.
So, though ‘Craving’ introduces the claustrophobic frustrations of an artist desperately trying to realise his ambitions while trapped in hometown routines, its assured pace distracts us from the theme.
It’s the subtleties of his pain that are better appreciated; ‘Let It Go’ exposes the struggles of maintaining a relationship that’s being tested by life changing around them. “Trying to fit your hand inside of mine / When we know it just don’t belong,” he laments, shifting from an aching growl to a pleading falsetto.
‘Move Together’ revisits his woes - similarly reflective and acoustic, it seeks a solution to an imminent rupture. The standout track, ‘Scars’, meanwhile, is a desperate admission of dependency and vulnerability. It begins stripped down, spotlighting Bay’s fraught pleas, and builds up to a reassuring climax - somewhat reminiscent of those air-punching ’80s power rock anthems.
The gospel-tinged closing track, ‘Incomplete’, finds the lovers in close physical contact, reconnecting, realising that surviving and maintaining love despite ongoing changes surrounding them is paramount.
That I’m a sucker for the sentimental side of things is not to say that the meatier moments are any less potent. Raised on a staple diet of classic rock, Bay effortlessly changes gear, getting spirited on ‘When We Were On Fire’, caustic on the crunching ‘Collide’, channeling his inner Springsteen on ‘Get Out While You Can’, and entering full-on preacher mode in the uplifting first single, ‘Hold Back The River’.
Admittedly, James Bay ventures dangerously close to MOR territory. He’s a troubadour that enjoys his craft - weaving soul, blues, Americana and soft rock into an easily appreciated message, it’s not difficult to see his appeal. But while some may accuse him of not taking risks, or suggest that by writing popular and infectious melodies he’s any less entitled to respect, there is enough substance here to warrant continued interest in his development.
So, he should fare well under all the attention currently being heaped upon him. This is an album of genuine intent, full of poignant reflections on romance, hope, fear, the past, the present, and the future. It’s got heart. And that’s enough for starters.
Words: Simon Harper
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