It’s been four years since the square-jawed, pork pie hat-wearing James Bay sprung the earnest-but-hip shaking gospel rock of “Hold Back the River.” Or in pop terms, an eternity. Just ask those pining for the return of Ireland’s own holy rolling Hozier — his bruised baritone was last heard in 2014 when the cascading “Take Me to Church” became a certifiable smash.
Bay was Hozier’s opening act then. A Brit who looked like Johnny Depp in “Benny & Joon,” he came on quietly and gangly, stooped over a strummed-hard acoustic guitar, and wound up outpacing the headliner with ardent, folksy romanticism. For that silty sound and stance, he eventually won over the U.K. (at 2016’s Brit Awards, he snagged Best British Male Solo Artist) and U.S. music execs (three nominations at the 2016 Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist) with his troubadour’s warble and earthiness. His 2015 debut album, “Chaos and the Calm,” became the rustic antidote to Ed Sheeran, what with Bay’s rough-shod, intimate intertwining of blues, folk and soul and his baritone quiver.
It is radical transformation, then, that fuels Bay’s sophomore release, “Electric Light.” There is, of course, the requisite physical shift: From a modified bob to a wavy trim, and from the (anti)sartorial display of the T-shirt and vest look of the 90s, to the body-hugging leathers and sparkle that inform the present. Beyond the look, however, it is the bubbling-over tone of Bay’s new record that is mostly shiny and new, inspired — says he — by the modernist, abstract soul of Frank Ocean and the signature Minneapolis snap of 80s-era Prince.
While “Fade Out” has the dream-woozy R&B openness of the former in its hazy arrangements, the tropical house-funk of “Wasted on Each Other” simply reeks of pop life and purple rain.
Ocean’s glimmering synth washes and tics affect a majority of “Electric Light,” from the overall ambient whir of “Pink Lemonade,” to the space gospel float of “Us.” Prince’s candy-coated fuzz tones and falsetto haunt “Sugar Drunk High” and its childhood reminiscences (“Chewing gum, cherry coke until our brains burned”) like a primal screaming ghost. Both Ocean and Prince inspire the plucked string orchestration, noise blues balladry and glitch rhythms of “I Found You.” From its rangy vocals and passionate howling about “sweeping up at 9 a.m.… beneath the mess of alcohol and cigarettes,” to Bay’s guitar’s glissando, “I Found You” is an epic that both men would’ve been proud to pen.
Additional syn-sleek influences abound on Bay’s sophomore effort. From the manner in which Bay wraps his quavering voice around his pleading lyrics to its crisp soulful melody, the aforementioned “Pink Lemonade” could be a Robert Palmer tune viewed through the prism of James Blake. Listen to the giddy “In My Head,” and Bay’s sensuous falsetto – set against faux French horns and sequenced finger snaps – sounds a lot like Mika’s “Love Today” with a hint of Paul Simon’s conversational éclat in its vocal rush.
To accomplish Bay’s new mix of diamonds and rust, British producer Paul Epworth – responsible for Florence + the Machine, Rihanna, recent albums from U2 and Paul McCartney, and most famously, Adele – was brought on to add shimmer and drama to Bay’s elegant new work, as well as clothe and feed the singer-guitarist’s newfound eclecticism. Any sense of theatrical build-up, from the epic whoosh of guitar that roars out of nowhere, to the grandeur of thundering drums found on “Electric Light,” probably come courtesy of the Grammy-winning Epworth. The producer, however, is not responsible for Bay’s voice and its blend of delicate lover-man nuance and high-voltage power belting.
Make no mistake, though: “Electric Light” is not always the sound of synths and eclectic iPod shuffling as a good majority of Bay’s second album feels like his first. The crowd of hard-strummed acoustic guitars, nervously shaken tambourines and background voices on “Just for Tonight” has the feel of a large gospel revival meeting in a tiny coffeehouse. That en masse singalong – a huge and hearty aspect of “Chaos and the Calm” – is still very present on Bay’s new album through the likes of “Hold Back the River.” Even the spare balladry of “Slide,” held together as it is with just a Satie-esque piano and a cloud of background voices, could’ve come from Bay’s debut. That sparseness and reliance on homey acoustic guitars and a campfire’s group voices makes the title of his new album quite apt.
For all the gloss and floss that accompanies the release of “Electric Light,” Bay is still very much at home in the earnest ruminations and folk-rocky tones of his debut, only now with higher production values and more bounce to the ounce. With that, “Electric Light” has the feel of a transitional effort; one that safely dips its toe in the cool Ocean front of soul synth-phonica, while maintaining Bay’s clay feel and rootsy emotionalism. Bay has matured into a glistening new sound without losing the old folk. Bravo.