You’ve got to tip your hat to James Bay: he’s gone for a bold reinvention on album number two and has largely achieved it, even if he doesn’t seem to know quite what he wants to reinvent himself as. The Hitchin singer-songwriter’s 2015 debut ‘The Chaos and the Calm’ went straight to number one, thanks to its unchallenging acoustic ballads (‘Hold Back the River’ has become a wedding fave). He could have repeated the formula, but that’s not what ‘Electric Light’ represents.
Instead he’s explored a variety of styles, from the indie-rock banger ‘Pink Lemonade’ to the Bleachers pastiche ‘In My Head’. The former is by far the best thing here – a sleek, modern update on the mid-noughties New York ‘New Rock Revolution’ sound that whooshes along like Julian Casablancas straddling a rocket to the stars – while the latter is so derivative that it only works if you’ve not heard of Jack Antonoff and still think the use of autotune is edgy. ‘Just For Tonight’ is George Ezra doing cheery Springsteen karaoke and lead single ‘Wild Love’, apparently inspired by Frank Ocean and Prince, sounds like Bon Iver browsing the sales aisle in a provincial TK Maxx.
It’s all accomplished and well-produced – as an introduction to these sounds, it’s absolutely on the money – but perhaps too scattershot to really gel.
In trying on so many hats (ironically, given that he no longer wears the signature headwear that made him so recognisable on ‘Chaos and the Calm’), Bay has failed to latch onto an identity that makes him truly relatable or identifiable. Perhaps that’s the point: from this juncture, he can do pretty much anything and still be James Bay. In addition, there’s something for everyone here. Not into Bleachers, The Stokes, Springsteen or Bon Iver? Wrap your ears around The War On Drugs-lite ‘Wanderlust’, or ‘I Found You’, which sounds like D’Angelo’s ‘Untitled’ minus the sex.
So, yes, ‘Electric Light’ is all over the place. There are hip-hop style spoken-word skits on the record and, actually, it sometimes sounds more like a lush, exploratory mixtape than a coherent album. Of course, Bay is to be commended for taking the path of most resistance, and for wowing us with something unexpected, but it’s often hard to shake the feeling that he’s simply sanitised the sound of various more interesting artists.