ADRIAN THRILLS: James Bay is back with heartland rock
James Bay: Leap (EMI )
Verdict: Bounding back to form
James Righton: Jim, I’m Still Here (Deewee)
Verdict: Pandemic tales with a twist
The UK’s male singer-songwriters are enjoying a fertile summer. In the past month, both George Ezra and Paolo Nutini have released new albums, while a reawakened live circuit has seen Sam Fender dazzle at Glastonbury, Lewis Capaldi headline the Isle Of Wight festival and Ed Sheeran round off a big UK tour with five nights at Wembley Stadium.
With the arrival of his third album, James Bay is also back on the scene. The Hitchin singer put a provincial, British spin on American heartland rock when he topped the charts with his 2014 debut, Chaos And The Calm, and for a while his chiselled cheekbones and black fedora were everywhere.
But his fortunes dipped in the aftermath of 2018’s Electric Light — a move towards glossy pop and slick R&B that has to go down as an unforced error — and he’s now returning to bluesy rock’n’roll.
The ringing guitars that powered songs such as Hold Back The River are again centre stage and there are intimate acoustic moments, too. It’s hard to escape the feeling he’s back in his comfort zone.
With the arrival of his third album, James Bay is also back on the scene. The Hitchin singer put a provincial, British spin on American heartland rock when he topped the charts with his 2014 debut, Chaos And The Calm
James, 31, began writing these songs in Nashville before the 2020 lockdown, working with local producer Dave Cobb, the man behind Barry Gibb’s Greenfields album. He also sought help from Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas, who adopts the same, less-is-more approach that is a hallmark of his sister’s work.
Rather than experiment musically, Bay is now pushing himself in other ways. When he announced this album, he shared a social media post detailing his feelings of inadequacy and Leap is his attempt to banish such negative thoughts.
He became a dad for the first time last October and many of the songs here are celebrations of the key relationships in his life.
The breezy, guitar-heavy One Life — ‘I’ve only got one life, and I want you in it’ — is a romantic tribute to his long-term girlfriend, Lucy, and the couple’s baby daughter. Similar themes are explored on country-soul ballad Right Now.
If you think it all sounds a little lovey-dovey, you’d be right . . . were it not for the fact that the sentimentality comes against a backdrop of the singer’s mental health struggles — and there are other songs here that paint a bleaker picture.
Everyone Needs Someone, sung in a falsetto, is about loneliness and has genuine emotional heft. Save Your Love, an acoustic lament produced by Finneas, offers a shoulder to cry on for a friend in need.
Better, a stripped-back ballad, seems to address the sense of being an impostor that Bay experienced when he first tasted pop success. ‘I’m still not sure who I’m supposed to be,’ he admits.
Former Klaxons singer and keyboardist James Righton put together the brilliant live band currently backing ABBA’s digital ‘Abbatars’ at the quartet’s London residency. He’s also releasing a solo album, Jim, I’m Still Here, made largely during lockdown, via Zoom, with members of Belgian electronic band Soulwax. He is pictured above with Keira Knightley in May
Amid the angst, fans will be cheered by a return to the guitar-driven basics that set him merrily on his way eight years ago. Give Me The Reason, is a punchy opener. Penultimate track Endless Summer Nights is an optimistic rocker with a Jersey Shore feel.
The cat in the hat is back — and he’s doing what he does best.
Another James is having a busy year, too. Former Klaxons singer and keyboardist James Righton put together the brilliant live band currently backing ABBA’s digital ‘Abbatars’ at the quartet’s London residency. He’s also releasing a solo album, Jim, I’m Still Here, made largely during lockdown, via Zoom, with members of Belgian electronic band Soulwax.
The Jim in question is Righton’s pandemic alter ego — ‘the deluded rock star, living out his fantasies from his garage’ — a character that came about as he was helping to home-school the eldest of his two daughters by day and live-streaming from his basement studio by night. In taking on his new persona, he looked to his wife, Hollywood star Keira Knightley, for inspiration.
‘I was making a story before I’d make the music,’ he says. ‘I’m married to an actress and I love the idea of creating someone. Watching what my wife puts into her work to create a character is amazing.’
As a droll, yet personal, summation of his life over the past two years (‘upstairs dad and downstairs pop star’), the album works a treat, though its lockdown stories do sometimes feel slightly dated now that the world is opening up again.
Unlike the ‘new rave’ music of Klaxons — once hailed as the saviours of UK club culture on the back of fun-packed gigs that featured fans waving glow-sticks and sounding air-horns — the sounds here are shimmering and dreamy. Righton, 38, supplies easy-going drum machine rhythms and keyboards. His semi-spoken vocals are deadpan and languid.
The album is bookended by two tracks, Livestream Superstar and Farewell Superstar, that look at his dual existence. The Kraftwerk-like I Want To Live is a classic ‘list song’ that wryly catalogues everything he hopes to achieve post-lockdown, including climbing Machu Picchu and stopping writing songs containing too many chords.
His best tracks have a warm, heartfelt quality. Real World Park is a contemplative account of visiting a New York playground with his eldest daughter.
The melancholy Day At The Races honours the memory of a friend who died from Covid-19. There’s even a cameo from ABBA’s Benny Andersson, who guests on the falsetto ballad Empty Rooms to round off what is an intriguing musical detour.