Album Review: James Bay – Chaos and the Calm

By on Wednesday, 25th March 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

Among the ever-growing milieu of soulful singer/songwriters, Hertfordshire’s James Bay seems poised to become the next big thing. In more ways than one, he is following in the very successful footsteps of an immediate predecessor, Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. Bay toured in America as Hozier’s support act last year (look back at our live review here), and just last week in Austin, Texas at SXSW 2015, he played the very same Communion Music showcase where Hozier made a name for himself in America at SXSW 2014. (Keep an eye on TGTF for upcoming coverage of last week’s Communion showcase, including Bay’s live performance.)

Hot on the heels of his SXSW 2015 appearances, Bay has just released his debut LP ‘Chaos and the Calm’, which continues with the blues rock, gospel-tinged song formula that first drew attention to his music. Comparison to Hozier’s debut album is probably inevitable, given the convergent career paths and superficial stylistic similarities between the two. While Bay’s sound is less boldly experimental than Hozier’s, on his LP Bay has done one notable thing that Hozier didn’t quite manage on his debut: specifically, Bay has found the sweet spot between variety and predictability. Where Hozier’s album was an intricate exploration of blues, gospel, folk and pop, Bay’s record is almost stunningly simple, drawing its power from his soulful vocal delivery and subtly evocative guitar lines. Bay’s lyrics on ‘Chaos and the Calm’ are likewise consistent, focusing on the heartache of love in transition, at the crossroads of breaking apart.

‘Craving’ is an immediately anthemic track with a driving rhythm and a passionately sung chorus that are particularly well-suited for opening live shows, which Bay has done on both of the occasions I’ve seen him. Hit single ‘Hold Back the River’, typically the final song on Bay’s live set list, begins with the stark yearning of a solo guitar, then gradually builds intensity by adding gospel harmonies behind Bay’s emotionally charged chorus and increasingly husky vocal timbre. The frenetic energy of harder-edged tracks ‘Best Fake Smile’ and ‘Collide’ provides propulsive momentum among moments of intense emotionality.

The album’s quieter moments are equally effective, including the achingly sensual slow-burner ‘Move Together’ and the gentle pleading of ‘Scars’. Bay closes the album with the more pensive ‘Incomplete’, which is true to its title in that it leaves behind a sense of longing for resolution. Rather than offering closure, however, Bay seems to be deliberately leaving himself open to further possibilities.

Bay’s songs might not be groundbreaking, but they are authentically and unapologetically emotional, and that is a large part of their appeal. Combined with Bay’s unique voice and the production assistance of Nashville’s Jacquire King, that quality has resulted in a strong album of engaging and instantly relatable tracks, which is becoming something of a rare find. In the midst of a singer-songwriter genre that is growing ever less focused and more loosely defined, ‘Chaos and the Calm’ is, despite its title, refreshingly sincere and straightforward.

8/10

James Bay’s debut album ‘Chaos and the Calm’ is out now on Virgin / EMI. Bay is set to embark on a run of live dates in the UK next month; find all the dates here.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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