James Bay – ‘Leap’ review: self-assured songs about satisfaction

Returning to his roots, the Hitchin musician has never sounded so confident, combining folksy familiarity with his long-running adventurous streak

James Bay has always struggled with knowing what type of artist he wants to be. The Hitchin singer-songwriter made a name for himself with the folksy longing of 2015’s The Chaos And The Calm’, which, backed by the anthemic ‘Hold Back The River’ and ‘Let It Go’, saw him became a staple of wedding playlists up and down the country. Then came 2018’s ‘Electric Light’, an adventurous, experimental trip through electric guitars, cinematic synths and rockstar swagger designed to challenge expectations, even if he didn’t always have an end goal in mind.

That struggle with identity continued through 2019’s ‘Oh My Messy Mind’, an EP that saw Bay wrestle with the past and the present, uncertain about where his future lay. There’s absolutely none of that inner conflict on third album ‘Leap’, though – it’s a bold, self-assured collection of songs about satisfaction. Bay has never sounded so sure of himself.

Musically, Leap is very much a return to those breakout acoustic campfire songs, with the swaying ‘Right Now’ and the thundering ‘One Life’ set to soundtrack many a first dance. However, the comfort of the known seems to have inspired Bay to push his songwriting to more vulnerable, honest places. Sure, he’s always been an emotional force tapping into wildly relatable topics such as loss and heartbreak, but contentment is a tricker beast to make sound exciting – just ask Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber. Yet Bay achieves it time and time again.

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‘Leap’ is never cheesy, boring or self-indulgent. He flirts with despair on the marching arena rock of ‘Love Don’t Hate Me’ (“We’re friends and we’re enemies, you’ve always forgiven me / So, here’s to the misery”), but ultimately settles on a celebration of perseverance. ‘Give Me The Reason’, meanwhile sees Bay pleading for “one more chance”, full of hope and fire.

Elsewhere ‘We Used To Shine’ explodes in a giddy burst of rock’n’roll excess while ‘Endless Summer Nights’ is playful, urgent and viciously joyful as Bay wields the lessons learnt from ‘Electric Light’. It might not be as experimental as his previous album, but ‘Leap’ is full of enough nuance and texture to keep people on their toes.

‘Better’ might offer a predictably emotional crescendo to the record, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. “I’m still not sure who I am supposed to be” Bay amid over a simple acoustic guitar line before talking about fear, childhood trauma, general anxieties and how love conquered all. It would feel like a cliché if it wasn’t handled with such grace. It’s the perfect conclusion to a touching, delicate record that finally sees Bay entirely comfortable with who he is.

Details

Release date: July 8

Record label: Republic Records

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