This debut album is rife with uncommon wit, insight and melody
There’s a great story about Jake Bugg that illustrates just how different he is from your average British teenager. Shortly after playing his first gig (not in some fauxhemian east London snakepit, but at his high school in Nottingham), Bugg’s friends, suitably impressed, implored him to audition for Britain’s Got Talent. In their defence, it’s no stretch to imagine Amanda Holden violently weeping all the fluid out of her body to the strains of ‘Country Song’ or ‘Someone Told Me’, but Bugg was having none of it. “I never would have done that,” he told one interviewer, “because it doesn’t seem genuine, it doesn’t feel natural.”
Authenticity is the last meaningful currency left in indie. These days we tend not to focus on whether our pop stars are doing things we haven’t heard before, but instead on what their education cost and how many failed musical adventures they had before getting famous (please see: The Vaccines, Mumford & Sons, Spector). Jake Bugg needn’t worry about that. For one thing, at just 18-years-old, he’s barely had time to be a failed anything. For another, having grown up in Clifton, formerly the largest housing estate in Europe, he’s more likely to nick silver spoons than choke on them. Mostly though, it’s because he’s a frighteningly talented songwriter. Whisper it, in case the weight of expectation proves too heavy, but he’s the real deal.
Though he’s been pegged as an East Midlands Dylan, that particular influence is a little overstated, and Bugg’s music is very much a product of the last 20-odd years of British guitar pop. You can trace the genealogy of ‘Lightning Bolt”s swaggering indie-skiffle back to The Coral, or the heart-stopping acoustic Merseydelica of ‘Slide’ to The La’s. There’s a wry, Turner-worthy lyric here, a dash of Libertines-esque urgency and danger there… you get the picture. Not for nothing he’s won the approval of Noel Gallagher.
Bugg’s love of ’60s psych-folk fella Donovan aside, his cues may not come from anywhere unexpected, but it’s what he does with them that counts. His urchin’s eye-view is drawn to the unglamorous and insalubrious: ‘Seen It All’ opens in a car park with Bugg dropping a pill (“Or maybe two”) before crashing a party at a local gangster’s house where “a friend took me aside, said ‘everyone here has a knife'”. Sure as the bullet in Chekhov’s gun, the song ends with someone being shivved in the garden. Another tune, ‘The Ballad of Mr Jones’, finds our young voyeur watching from the periphery as a wronged man exacts revenge on the people who killed his wife. Nottingham’s tourist board must be thrilled.
But his scowling anger is just a front, a carefully erected facade that shields a vulnerable and contemplative soul. The album’s more subdued moments – like the disarmingly sweet navel-gaze of ‘Simple As This’, or the folksy arm-around-the-shoulder reassurance of ‘Note To Self’ – are its most remarkable ones, where Bugg’s voice, usually accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar, takes on a preternatural wisdom. ‘Broken’ is a song of such towering beauty and elegance, it boggles the mind that a scruffy teenager barely old enough to shave could have written it.
On ‘Two Fingers’, Bugg talks wistfully of scheming on the streets of Clifton, where he and his mates would “skin up a fat one, hide from the feds”, as though life held no nobler pursuit. You can tell that, up until now, his world has been small, and he might well have spiralled down the sinkhole that swallows so many marginalised estate kids. Eventually, however, Bugg comes to the same conclusion that we do: “Something is changing, changing, changing”. If this debut album – rife with uncommon wit, insight and melody – is testament to anything, it’s that his small, unremarkable world is about to get a whole lot bigger.