×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Album Review: James Bay’s ‘Electric Light’

The British troubadour has fashioned a glistening new sound without losing the old folk.

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.

Album Review: James Bay's 'Electric Light'

More Music

  • Pete Buttigieg Show Business Donations

    Mayor Pete Buttigieg Is Totally Up for Booking Phish For His Inauguration

    Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign seems to be going Phish-ing… in the best possible sense. (Unless you just hate the band Phish so much there is no best possible sense.) The Democratic presidential candidate has previously indicated his love for the group, and when a reporter suggested Phish play at his theoretical swearing-in festivities in 2021, [...]

  • Amazon

    Amazon Music’s Free Tier Is More Advertising Play Than Spotify Killer, Analysts Say

    When news began to spread last week that Amazon Music’s long-anticipated free streaming tier was imminent, headlines emerged about its threat to Spotify and Apple Music, with some stories saying that Spotify’s stock price dropped in response to the news. But not only was today’s launch of the free tier basically a soft one — [...]

  • Nicki MinajCFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Dinner,

    Nicki Minaj Parts Ways With Longtime Managers (EXCLUSIVE)

    Nicki Minaj has parted ways with Gee Roberson and Cortez Bryant and Blueprint/ Maverick Management, a source close to the situation confirms to Variety. She had worked with the pair for the majority of her career. The source says the decision was mutual and amicable, and there was no specific reason for the split, adding [...]

  • Amazon

    Amazon Music Launches Free Streaming Tier, Through Alexa Only (for Now)

    Amazon Music today basically soft-launched its free streaming tier, in which U.S. customers of its Alexa voice assistant will have access to top Amazon Music playlists and thousands of stations, at no cost. The limited access that the new free service provides — it’s only available through Alexa, and when the listener requests a song, [...]

  • Donald Glover and Adidas Launch Short

    Donald Glover and Adidas Launch Partnership With New Shoes and Short Films (Watch)

    Donald Glover and Adidas Originals today announced Donald Glover Presents, a creative partnership that unveiled a new line of shoes and a series of brief — and very funny — films to accompany them. (Watch them below.) Donald Glover Presents reimagines threeAadidas styles, the Nizza, the Continental 80, and the Lacombe. The shoes feature uneven [...]

  • Cypress Hill Walk of Fame Honor

    For Cypress Hill, Stoned Is the Way of the Walk of Fame

    The skunky smell is a familiar one. Inside the Cypress Hill tour bus, a thick cloud of smoke billows in the air. It’s the Los Angeles hip-hop group’s 30th year and they’re being rewarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (at 6201 Hollywood Blvd.). They’ll probably refer to it as their Hollyweed [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content