Download this: Wasted On Each Other, Pink Lemonade, Stand Up, Wanderlust, Slide
The music industry rarely gives an emerging artist the time they need to develop anymore, keen as they are to cash in on hype and an audience’s rabid demand for new music. So one singer-songwriter after another “explodes onto the scene” and gets plonked onto stages they’re not ready to play yet.
It’s what rankles for the media, often, despite accusations of snobbery or mean-spiritedness; they just know there’s a very high chance these singer-songwriters won’t turn out to be as good as they’re hailed, and more likely than not will be gone in a couple of years.
So fair play to James Bay, an artist whose mere name could prompt the curl of a music critic’s lip, for coming back with his second album Electric Light clearly determined to reinvent himself from a Brits troubadour darling – also nominated for three Grammys – to something a little more credible. And it’s been hard not to feel sorry for him, plagued as he has been from the beginning by rumours of famous girlfriends, and constant questions about that f**king hat.
Without the unnecessary intro, “Wasted On Each Other” is a superb opener; the punch of the guitar and Bay’s husky-then-keening vocals, singing falsetto over a bluesy, gritty instrumentation: “Everybody calls us foolish/They don’t know how foolish tastes.”
The momentum continues with the single “Pink Lemonade”, which seems to despair at the dreaded relationship question “what are you thinking?” (“Do you wanna talk/Do you wanna talk it through/Swear I ain’t got anything on my mind/I don’t want to talk to you”) and blends a pop sensibility with rock in a similar way to former One Direction member Harry Styles, ahead of closer “Slide” which is more akin to the sultry R&B sound of Zayn Malik.
Citing the likes of Prince and Frank Ocean as influences on Electric Light is confusing as the listener reaches the third or fourth track, as the sound and stylings on this album speak more of John Mayer and Fleetwood Mac. There’s a little of Prince in the sensuousness of certain songs, but Bay doesn’t possess that same crackling sexual energy as the Purple One; he’s more brooding, introspective.
You can hear nods to James Blake, Drake and, bizarrely, something of Macklemore in the piano and spoken word intro on “In My Head”. A second interlude halfway through the album is more The Archers than anything else Bay might have been going for. Distorted vocals on songs like “Stand Up” are unlikely to remind music fans of anything but Bon Iver.
Producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + The Machine) apparently got involved on Electric Light after one of Bay’s A&R reps secretly sent him the music. His influence is present in the build in the drums and that punchy guitar before a sudden lull, the romanticised drama he also assisted with on Adele’s albums, and in the range of synths and a general eclecticism that wasn’t so present on Bay’s debut Chaos and the Calm.
“Just For Tonight” contains Lorde-esque themes of escapism but feels too similar to “Hold Back The River”. While Epworth’s production seems to have added a dynamism that maintains the attention span more than Chaos and the Calm could manage, you can still end up drifting on the chorus.
The album picks back up on “Wanderlust” which is where those Fleetwood influences really seem to come in, the trippy, slightly drawling delivery of the lyrics and the sweet twang of the guitar recalls “Everywhere” or “Dreams”. Then there’s a swaggering, fuzzy guitar line on the opening of “I Found You” which melds sweetly into a sprawling, gospel-infused track that flares and dims like the light in the album title.
Despite dubious comments in recent interviews that suggested Bay felt a change of wardrobe was enough to signal this reinvention, it’s not. The music needs to do the talking. Fortunately, for the most part, it does. Electric Light is a step up.