James Bay is the name on everyone’s lips right now, fresh from winning the BRIT’s Critic’s Choice Award and opening for big names such as Hozier and The Rolling Stones, as well as being the object of desire for pretty much anyone with a pulse (or a hat fetish). The charismatic singer-songwriter from Hertfordshire has certainly had a blast so far, having been discovered through an enthusiastic gig-goer uploading a video of his performance to YouTube and being snapped up by the same label as Florence + The Machine and Lorde. His chiseled cheekbones and clean Jack White-meets-Johnny Depp look even got him noticed by Burberry, who had him kick off their Spring/Summer 2015 catwalk show (probably paid for in headwear), following in the footsteps of fellow poppers Tom Odell and Paloma Faith.
Debut single ‘Hold Back The River’ had the world hooked with its thrilling riffs and anthemic building chorus, making Bay’s first album, Chaos and the Calm, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2015 so far. Recorded in Nashville with the help of Kings Of Leon producer Jacquire King, all the stops were certainly pulled out for this one to live up to the hype.
Opening with the punchy ‘Craving’, Bay kicks off by setting the tone with an electric country twang, his studio surroundings heavily influencing his sound. A strong opening number, drumbeats pound throughout while an energetic Bay demands of his listeners, “Where do I go? What do I need?”, the answer seemingly being to get the hell out of sleepy Hitchin and on his way to stardom. Grabbing the country influence and running with it, ‘If You Ever Want to Be In Love’ is a smooth, piano-fuelled later track, interlaced with rootsy electric guitar riffs and a deliciously deep bass.
There’s no doubt that Bay has a great ear for composition, but it’s the heartfelt lyrics that really deserve the spotlight. Fans may recognise the slow burner ‘Let It Go’ (not of Frozen fame, thank God) from a previous EP, where Bay croons about a failing relationship over a simple strummed melody. Almost whispering as the various stages of a break-up are laid bare to the world, it’s simple, stripped-back songwriting at its very best. An old soul in a young body, Bay’s vulnerability shines through in a breathy falsetto that sticks with you.
Equally soulful is the second single, ‘Scars’, a heartbreaking tale of a loved one having to leave the country and love behind (this guy really has no luck with the ladies), emotive and gradually building, Bay really lays his heart on the line in what he claims was his hardest song to write. Beginning with a gentle plucking, the track builds to its crescendo of steady drumbeats, acoustic harmonies and pleading vocals that come straight from the gut. Don’t worry, he does seem to get her back in closing ‘I Need The Sun To Break’, so all’s not lost – sorry ladies.
Fear not, it’s not all break-ups and slow heartache; ‘Best Fake Smile’ brings a welcome change of pace to the album, with tambourine shaking a-plenty and an infectious background clapping. A track which really showcases the raw gravelly tones to Bay’s voice, he urges listeners to shake off the baggage they no longer need for the better. The edgier ‘Collide’ also brings more of a high-octane rock feel, bound to wake up the crowd with its sharper, more aggressive delivery. But the stand-out track comes in the form of ‘Get Out While You Can’, a refreshingly fast-paced, gospel-feeling track which grabs and holds your attention with its killer hooks and rousing final verse.
All-in-all, Chaos and the Calm is exactly what its title suggests – a fine collection of bluesy ballads from a young man who seems to have had his heart tumultuously battered and his life flipped around. It tugs at your heartstrings throughout and always keeps you coming back for more, much like your first love will. Or possibly your ASOS account.
Chaos and the Calm is out on the 23rd March via Republic Records.