Review Summary: "Something is changing, changing, changing..."
Too many of today’s youth want only for fame and fortune, and sadly, music often gets caught in this ugly struggle. The success of shows such as ‘The X Factor’ couldn't serve as better examples of music being used as a mere commercial tool; an engineered, cynical ploy to bring home the bacon for men like Simon ***ing Cowell. There’s no heart in it; no soul. Its most successful artists sing songs they don’t write, to tunes they don’t compose, wearing clothes and haircuts picked by stylists, whoring themselves out to the public with massive budgets for videos and tours, not to mention the easy head start gained from the mass audience of banal ***e like ‘X Factor’. It makes one lose faith in modern music, then young men like Jake Bugg spring up out of nowhere.
It would've been all too easy for the teenager, raised in one of the largest housing estates in Europe - Clifton, Nottingham, England - to take the fast route to public exposure and appear on one of those aforementioned televised gawp-fests like so many others would. But he didn't. His first gig was at his local high school, and when it was suggested he audition for one of those TV talent shows he shunned the idea because “it doesn't feel genuine. It doesn't feel natural”. That’s the naked but crucial difference that sets the frame for this remarkable kid. He's doing something real and honest, and in this day and age, that’s a big ***ing deal. It’s unsurprising that he’s already gained the support of his peers; Oasis chief Noel Gallagher booking him as the opener for his High Flying Birds gigs and confirming “I’m a fan”. Coming from the songwriter in one of Britain’s biggest bands of the last 20 years, its high praise indeed.
Fortunately, listening to Jake Bugg’s self-titled debut album doesn't make it hard to see what all the fuss is about. It’s not going to re-write the rule book of rock but it doesn't have to. It’s a back to basics approach – with most tunes featuring Bugg’s voice and acoustic guitar way in the foreground – feeling like all that’s needed to re-fresh UK indie and shine a little light for the struggling guitar pop scene.
Big tunes such as ‘Two Fingers’ and ‘Lightning Bolt’ leap out with an effortless but astounding immediacy, and hook you in with razor sharp song writing. ‘Two Fingers’ is his biggest single – a 3 minute, should-be pop giant. It opens to a simple as could be acoustic strum before Bugg’s Americana-tinged vocals strain in, loud and pushed to the front of the mix as they rightly should be. It’s a simple tale, he goes back to Clifton to see his old friends; the thrill of the day is to “skin up a fat one, hide from the feds”. But the council estate kid vibe soon gets drowned out by Bugg’s anthemically catchy optimism in the chorus “so I hold two fingers up to yesterday / light a cigarette and smoke it all away / I got out, I got out / I’m alive and now I’m here to stay”. The roots of the singer are bare and genuine, but that optimism and his song writing skill ensures this refreshing artist is more than just important to the scene but potentially a star.
‘Lightning Bolt’ is even more propulsive and catchy, and like earlier tracks such as ‘Kentucky’, show off Bugg’s influence of American artists like Dylan – as he is sometimes jokingly dubbed the east midlands version of. Although the American link is there, there’s still a tangibly British feel to the lyrics. For every yell of “moma” there’s a reference to “drinking white lightning” to match.
The real surprises on this stellar debut come in the more subdued moments. The tunes are even more stripped back and Bugg’s vocals even louder in the mix. ‘Slide’, ‘Simple as This’, ‘Country Song’ and especially ‘Broken’ are all staggeringly pretty guitar pop ballads, some more subdued, others more emotional. It shows a deeper side beyond the swaggering surface of an 18 year old who smokes joints on council estate streets with his mates, and goes to parties where people pull him aside to reveal that “everyone here has a knife” (‘Seen it All’).
Jake Bugg is simply a rarity in today’s music. It moves in cycles - new bands come along and bring elements of the past up to date, refreshing guitar music and thrusting it back into pop’s approval. The Smiths made guitars cool again in the 80’s, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays brought elements of 60’s psychedelica crashing into the modern day, fusing them with dance. Oasis nicked from the Beatles and the Stones, and just about every other great British rock and roll band of the decades before to become globe spanning preachers of guitar goodness. The Libertines brought anarchism back and the Arctic Monkeys shook up the early 00’s with the sharpness of Alex Turner’s lyrics, but then the UK guitar music scene slowly dried up.
But the cycle may have just about come full circle in time for the next big thing to refresh the scene. It’s a new decade, and bands such as Birmingham’s arty Peace and London’s rough and ready Palma Violets are blasting out the first signs of something exciting happening in British guitar music again. With Jake Bugg’s raw, honest talent, he may just prove the simple catalyst to set the ball well and truly rolling. Whether he does or not is not actually important, as aside from all the hype, buzz and expectation placed on his young shoulders there’s a genuine and exciting talent that’s shines bright on this album, and will ensure Jake Bugg won’t be a name to forget soon.