It must be hard for Jake Bugg. Despite his attempts to reject the commercial music business, no other artist at the moment seems to thrive quite so well through a series of famous comparisons. Bob Dylan, Liam Gallagher and Alex Turner are all names that spring to mind when asked to describe the music, or behaviour, of Jake Bugg. After a debut that resulted in a certain amount of grooming by almost every musical publication and journalist in the country, Bugg, releasing his follow-up Shangri La is now contending with the consequences, i.e. dizzyingly-high expectations.
Despite his home-grown appeal, Bugg is not a newcomer to influential leg-ups. His debut was largely co-written with Iain Archer (think Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’), Crispin Hunt and Matt Prime and now ‘big time’ producer Rick Rubin is onboard collaborating with Bugg at his Shangri-la Studios in California hence the album’s title. To be brutally honest, the name makes my skin crawl. ‘Shangri-la’ seems to be the buzzword of the music world at the moment, or perhaps it’s just my ears pricking up to the mention of it creeping into Arctic Monkey lyrics, or last summer’s Glastonbury festival area, or the fact Stevie Nicks and Mark Knopfler have both used the word in album titles.
Its meaning of a fantastical earthly paradise just seems to me an idea incongruent with authenticity, which unfortunately for Bugg is his primary crutch. Which makes me wonder: is every teenage fan from the estates of Clifton, also now scratching their heads and wondering why their homebred hero needed to go all the way to Malibu for inspiration? How exactly can the ‘Messed Up Kids’ of the Nottingham estates have their corner fought all the way from the West Coast? And how does the ‘Slumville Sunrise’ compare to the daybreak over his luxury resort? (Disclaimer-I am merely hypothesising as to his conditions of living.)
But enough of scrutinising Bugg’s methods and on to the content of the new album: The Dylan-esque electric leap comparison is irresistible, but to credit Bugg, whilst there is a marked change of direction to his style, he also stays true to some of the country influences he’s been celebrated for, as seen in the opening track ‘There’s a Beast and We All Feed it’. The social commentary of his first album continues in ‘Messed up Kids’ but is not done with much subtlety, ‘The messed up kids are the corner with no money/They sell their time, they sell their drugs, they sell their body’. And Johnny and Jenny. Really?
Bugg can not afford to deal in clichés, and this is my major problem with the first single from the album ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’. It’s probably the most ‘electric’ of the album. It’s punchy and fast, coming in at 2.09, perhaps reminiscent of the early lyric-spitting style of the Arctic Monkeys, but gives off the impression that he rushed through writing it too. It’s just a little too teenage angsty and coming from someone the same age as Bugg, I feel I have the authority to criticise him on that front. (At least we are relieved from some of the more naively lovelorn tracks of his debut-‘Someone Told Me’ and ‘Someplace’ spring to mind).
In contrast stands, ‘All of your reasons’ which is slower with carefully constructed guitar solos, seeming perhaps to be a nod to Neil Young-an influence frequently cited with ‘Hey Hey My My’ featuring often in his live repertoire. Bugg tells us, ‘It’s my heart’s desire to set the world on fire’ and his openness is endearing, a refreshing contrast to the cold persona we are used to offstage.
The final track seems to engage in an odd continuity stunt with the first album, like ‘Fire’ on the debut, ‘Storm Passes Away’ sounds distinctly ‘old recordy’ (I believe that is a technical term). However, as I went back to confirm this hypothesis, I realised that this final track actually sounds a lot like all the other tracks on the debut. Only then did I realise how clean-cut, and dare I say it, boring the production on Shangr La is. It sounds exactly as I would expect an alternative rock album to sound, and that disappointed me-I’m sure his collaboration with Rubin cost him enough.
The bottom line is this: I like the album (believe it or not), but it’s just not good enough. Although we can hardly blame Bugg for that. His next album will be a real turning point, and he will need to decide if he wants to continue to be shaped by those surrounding him or if he is able to pave his way to success as an individual.