Album Review / James Bay – Chaos and the Calm

Naming an album is something you have to get right, particularly that of a debut. That name is what will be emblazoned all over posters, tweeted about in its hundreds, blogged about: it symbolises your album and what it encapsulates. In this sense, James Bay’s debut Chaos and the Calm falls a little short.

The LP features several guitar-powered musings of relationships and the heartaches of love, however is quite unbalanced; there is a hell of a lot more calm than chaos running through Bay’s first offering. The latest winner of the Brit Critics’ Choice Award, previously won by the likes of Adele and Sam Smith, the Hitchin-born songwriter has some big shoes to fill. The jury is still out on that one.

We’ll start with the chaos, or at least, his attempt at it. Chaos and the Calm opens with guitar-heavy ‘Craving’, showcasing the grit and power of Bay’s voice but not really going anywhere else once he’s started. Later tracks such as ‘Collide’ and ‘If You Ever Want To Be In Love’ are further efforts in this sense, with much more of an edgy, bluesy feel, and you can hear the particularly obvious Kings of Leon influence from a mile away within ‘Get Out While You Can’, Bay claiming “I’ve been here too long and if I stay, they’ll tie me down”. However, the lyrics to this latter track have much more depth than the rest of the song. The best attempt of Bay’s at the titular chaos is track ‘Best Fake Smile’, lyrically about not needing to have any ‘best fake friends’. It’s a much more rocky affair and showcases wonderfully his falsetto range, easily being a contender for a single release in the coming months.

Overall, the album has much calmer, melancholy feel. ‘Hold Back The River’, a song that Bay explained in a Billboard interview came from the emotion of not getting to see family and friends while touring, is his biggest hit to date, and stands out on the album due to its hook and chorus that will stick with you long after the first listen. His previous single ‘Let It Go’ is a wonderful example of a mid-tempo ballad with Bay’s lyrics of a disintegrating relationship tugging on the heartstrings of the listener – the sentiments of this are further reiterated on track ‘Scars’, a song that took two years in the making due to its raw and emotional inspiration of moving away from his long-term girlfriend. A brilliant example of the calmer tracks is ‘Move Together’, a song I can see being a favourite on tour backed by a live band, the melancholy nature of it also being the perfect choice off the album to soundtrack a break-up scene in an independent movie.

The majority of James Bay’s debut is influenced and inspired by many of the raw emotions that we experience within relationships, however many of the tracks are on a similar level and don’t really go anywhere – they come across as more studied emotions, the rawness not always on show throughout. While this debut illustrates the talent of Bay and his potential for the future, it is a collection of quite safe material that doesn’t quite descend into as much chaos as the title promises and leaves us, to quote opener ‘Craving’, “craving something [we] can feel”.

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Words by Kirstie Sutherland

[Originally written for Redbrick Music]

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