Album Review: James Bay – Electric Light

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

With his sophomore release, it’s obvious that James Bay is a man on a mission. Electric Light sees the singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist attempt to fuse different genres into his own brand of alternative rock — relying on infectious pop hooks, soulful vocals, blues and electronica — and for the most part, he’s successful. Bay’s decision to experiment with an array of diverse sounds is a brave move for the artist and exhibits growth from his 2015 debut album Chaos and the Calm.

Electric Light’s intro has a cinematic quality — the audio features a chaotic scene where a couple is on the verge of breaking up (from either a relationship or a particular situation), but the female defuses the situation and they then depart. In the background, the world around them is pure madness with police sirens and people panicking. This intro seems to set up the album as an insight into navigating the sentimentality of human emotions in a world that's ridden with madness.

After the dynamic intro, the album progresses through to ‘Wasted On Each Other’, which is both the first and best track from Electric Light. Featuring alluring riffs and vivacious guitars, the track entices listeners from the beginning. ‘Wasted On Each Other’ appears to be about a discordant relationship that has its moments of heat, but rapidly dissolves into ice; “You build me up and in the same breath you knock me down / You turn me on, and just as quick, you might kick me out”. Bay’s vocals are confident and assertive throughout the track’s duration — even the addition of ad-libs like ‘put your hands up’ shows his confidence. The build-up towards its conclusion, which sees the track turn mellow before launching one last time, also showcases the combination of hot and cold and the nature of the relationship Bay depicts.

Bay turns the dial up even higher with the next track ‘Pink Lemonade’, which is consumed by bouncy and arresting pop hooks that are designed to be blasted aloud. The track’s title is reminiscent of the relationship Bay is describing — both sweet and sour, and the bewitchment that occurs when they mix. Again, he discusses an inharmonious relationship where he doesn't want the sentimental feelings but goes on to describe an idyllic (and somewhat) romantic evening of lounging around naked and watching movie trailers, showcasing the sweet and sour energy of the relationship of the track’s subject. Things switch up for the next track ‘Wild Love’, where he says “Don't know what to say to you now / Standing right in front of you / Don't know how to fade in and out / Don't know how to play it cool / Lose a little guard, let it down / We don't have to think it through / We've got to let go”. There’s little room for the doubts described in the two songs before it, ‘Wild Love’ is all passion minus the questions and overthinking. The track also sees Bay experiment with electronic production, whilst also amalgamating the distinctive elements of his sound — whether it’s his signature build-up and releases, as well as his soulful vocals.

‘Us’ shares many parallels to the album’s intro — the challenge of embracing love in a world that’s rotting. The song sees Bay search for reassurance. He believes in the light and goodness of the world but needs guidance amongst the darkness. The introspective lyricism provides an insight into the real-life ponderings of those who feel suffocated by the world around them. The track’s imagery is powerful and presents feelings of nostalgia to the listener.

Even though Bay’s experimentation on ‘In My Head’ presents something new for the artist, the track is the victim of fusing too many different sounds, resulting in a song that feels out of place comparing to the songs that come before it. ‘In My Head’ is slightly overproduced and needs to be stripped back. Though the celebratory energy of the track is exciting, the spoken lyrics and use of autotune fall short. The track’s saving grace is the catchy hook and choir-like vocals. Any concerns about the rest of the album are interrupted by an interlude, which is similar to the chaotic scenes of the intro. Next up, ‘Just For Tonight’ is reminiscent of ‘In My Head’, except it’s more polished. The anthemic track presents a sense of urgency from Bay. He’s able to successfully combine soul, pop-elements, along with his slick vocals.

Just like much of the tracks on Electric Light, ‘Wanderlust’ would prove to be a great live number during live shows. Despite the borderline surf-rock vibes of the track, the chilled energy is combined with an animated build up and release.

‘I Found You’ is another fine example of Bay’s daring experimentation, where he combines soul and electronic production, and unlike ‘In My Head’, it works well. The commanding track feels euphoric, and it features moments that are elevating are intoxicating. His vocals are controlled and are able to handle the command of the production and still manage to shine. The instrumental at the track’s conclusion provides a brief moment of reprieve. The luring feeling of ‘I Found You’ is disrupted by ‘Sugar Drunk High’, whose lyrics feels out of place from the other tracks. It’s interesting to note that the latter part of the album features a collection of nostalgic moments, which continues on ‘Stand Up’. ‘Stand Up’ once again sees Bay reach for the auto-tune. The frenzied instrumentals towards the end of the track are beautifully chaotic. The track continues the theme of finding yourself when the rest of the world feels lost.

Seductive instrumentals, intricate electronic sounds and Bay’s effortless vocals provide to be an alluring mix on ‘Fade Out’. The track details a hookup; “You only call me when no one's around / You only want me when the lights are down”. ‘Fade Out’ proves to be smooth listening on an album that is commanded by soaring vocals and invigorated production. The minimal nature of ‘Fade Out’ compliments the rest of the album, but also provides something new and distinctive from the rest of the tracks.

The album concludes with ‘Slide’, which is a poignant and reflective closer. Featuring him and the piano, the track is story-like and cinematic — discussing the importance of love during the world’s current state. The track also features a verse from Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Song’;  "The weight of the world / is love / Under the burden / of solitude, / under the burden / of dissatisfaction”.

Electric Light sees Bay merge several distinct elements, and when it works, he produces pure magic. Bay moves in the right direction with his new album, and it will be intriguing to witness how he refines his sound after the experimentation of his current release, and the elements he decides to keep or abandon.

Written by Amy Smolcic (@amysmolcic)

You can purchase Electric Light here or stream it via Apple Music

You can catch James Bay on tour while he's in town for Splendour in the Grass. Dates are below:

24th July - Hamer Hall, Melbourne - link
25th July - State Theatre, Sydney - link