Ever since Jake Bugg cast aside his co-writers and asserted full control over his music, he’s struggled to find much to say with it. His 2012 debut might have had an assist from the bloke who wrote Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’, but its tales of council-estate drudgery and the longing to escape it felt real; fast-forward to last year’s ‘On My One’, however, and Bugg was grumbling about life on the road, the girls he left behind and making baffling excursions into hip-hop. At this stage in his career, having fulfilled every adolescent rock-star fantasy a po’ boy from Nottingham could harbour, ‘write what you know’ may not be the soundest songwriterly advice.
His fourth album doesn’t solve that conundrum – Bugg still sings about love and loss in prosaic terms that carry all the weight of a Hallmark card – but ‘Hearts That Strain’ is at least consistent where its predecessor seemed confused. It’s also his best-sounding album to date, recorded in Nashville with the same band who played on Elvis’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In The Ghetto’.
Yet the defining feature of ‘Hearts That Strain’ may be its puzzling lack of urgency: Bugg started as an heir apparent to the Gallagher brothers, but on MOR-country ballads like ‘This Time’ or ‘Bigger Lover’ he sounds more like an over-earnest James-Blunt- in-waiting. It’s hard to see where Bugg goes from here: he’s either a man still in search of a niche or, more worryingly, locked into the wrong one.