For those of you who subscribe to radio in any capacity, James Bay’s debut album will come as no surprise. The Brit Critics Choice Awardee has recently been lauded as the next big thing and with the success of his second single, ‘Hold Back the River’ has been kicked into full throttle with an English Arena tour plus American and European dates that including a stop at SXSW. His performance in an Austin Church wasn’t the first time he’d been down south either; recording his first album in Nashville with Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon) the influence both geographically and stylistically are undeniable.
His soulful pining has won favour with thousands but Chaos and The Calm has far too much of the latter to be anything but an disappointingly anthemic debut. Channelling the likes of James Morrison and The Brothers Followill, Bay offers his own insipid form of “rocking out” that’s more the soundtrack to a rainy afternoon than a tempest. Opening with ‘Craving’, he offers a perspective on yearning for something more; it doesn’t break the mould musically but a solid foundation shows off an impressive range moving from raspy bellows to soft falsetto. Later track ‘Incomplete’ goes beyond again to show how powerful and confident he can be in his higher scale.
Lead single ‘Let It Go’ begins with promise but falls flat quite quickly. Holding a listeners attention is difficult and at times some tracks become far too self indulgent to seem relatable – as a young man of 24 it’s hard to even believe he has experienced some of the labours of his writing. ‘If You ever Want To Be In Love’ however is a soulful blues endeavour and not just thanks to the presence of a slide guitar either; the vocal swell in each chorus adds a conviction to the worn out cliché of unrequited love and works to Bay’s advantage. As Damien Rice proved with The Blowers Daughter it takes little lyrical complexity to write a moving song and ‘Move Together’ is no different; there’s a beautiful cadence to the words as he repeats, “How we gonna move together? Just come close”.
His talent as a storyteller is well defined on the more raw, stripped back songs such as ‘Scars’ and ‘Need The Sun to Break’. Breaking out from those tender moments, the up-tempo ‘Best Fake Smile’ and ‘Collide’ show a more ballsier approach to writing. No doubt it’s these tracks which will rile festival goers this coming season and provided he works on his stagecraft, will raise him to new heights.
The charts are awash with solo male artists at the moment and it takes something special to define yourself from the rest. Hozier fell into the pitfalls of being lost on a huge stage as one man with great talent; only time will tell but it’s Bay may also fall victim to. He offers more than the criticisms of being “James Blunt with a hat” but James Bay has a lot more living to do before he writes an album that will stand up of his own accord.