From the disco-infused beats of Random Access Memories to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s viral send-up of “Bound 2,” 2013 has been a year of homage. For Jake Bugg, such sources of inspiration have proven to be a little less clear-cut. The nineteen year-old’s emergence as the poster child for a new generation of UK guitar rock prompted reviewers to cite forebears as varied as Oasis and Bob Dylan. Thus far, we’ve seen him don the guises of cocky rockstar and winsome troubadour, and yet the Nottingham teenager seems reluctant to decide whether he’s best suited to either role.
“Why not both,” he asks on his second album, Shangri La. He’s even teamed up with Rick Rubin in an effort to mould those influences into a coherent release. Rubin’s task, then, is to coax craft and nuance out of the raw talent we heard on Bugg’s self-titled debut last year. The partnership, for the most part, has clicked, and the quick turnaround of this second LP hasn’t blunted the singer’s sharp songwriting abilities in the slightest – even if the formula could use some more refining.
As with Bugg’s earlier work, these songs instantly hark back to the energetic Brit rock revivalism of the last decade. Call it one-dimensional, but Bugg wears his leather jackets and long hair well on the lad-rock ensemble of “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It.” Fans will recall his reserved approach to interviews, and yet he retains his confidence behind the mic as he bounces his way along a two-note bass backing. Like half the tracks on this album, this opening salvo rushes gleefully through verse, chorus, and middle-eight without so much as breaking the three-minute mark.
He’s just as restless on “Slumville Sunrise,” a customarily gritty portrayal of his urban upbringing set to upbeat rockabilly. The sound of jangly guitars and toes furiously tapping away seems at odds with the themes of drug dealers and back alleys, but you’ll soon find yourself singing along to the murky refrain of “Messed Up Kids”: “The sky all pastel shades / Under breeze block palisades”. Even here, Bugg retains his habit of attacking his verses somewhere between anger and youthful indifference.
It therefore comes as a surprise that first single “What Doesn’t Kill You” replaces this nonchalance with an attempt at early Arctic Monkeys bluster. Bugg told Rolling Stone that the song was a red herring of sorts, recognising it as an anomaly against the lighter touch he employs throughout the rest of this album. And while it’s a decent stab at shifting the pace among the opening tracks, his typically quickfire intonations struggle to impose themselves in a song that fails to deliver a percussive knockout blow in the vein of Alex Turner and co.
Instead, Bugg is at his most direct when he takes us away from dangerous city streets to the dirt-track roads of the country. He excels in these quieter moments, eschewing the usual fast-paced sneers for folk-tinged strums and bittersweet romance. There’s a well-worn isolation that ebbs through the slow blues jams of “All Your Reasons” and the shuffling rhythms of “A Song About Love” with its pained cry of “I just want to find where you are.”
Although Bugg’s snarl will probably continue to drive a wedge between his fans and detractors, it’s among the dusty phrases of guitar on the likes of album closer ‘Storm Passes Away’ where it finds the most room to breathe. It’s also met by a touch more lyrical intimacy; ‘Me and You’ and the hushed “Pine Trees” arguably see him at his most vulnerable. These plaintive diversions, happily, allow Bugg to cast aside the marketing pretensions and sing with all the honesty of a young man and his guitar.
So it seems that Rubin has done well to settle Bugg’s sound with these intermittent moments of restraint; if only they went on longer. The album’s exhausting early tracks set a breathless pace, but it’s among the slower rhythms of Shangri La that the singer is at his most thoughtful and compelling – the caveat here being that he hasn’t quite stifled the Oasis-lite vibe that has followed him throughout his career so far. Despite the myriad of comparisons to other artists, the confidence and experience Jake Bugg demonstrates on this album suggests that he is more than just a throwback.