Album Reviews

James Bay – Chaos And The Calm

(Virgin EMI) UK release date: 23 March 2015

James Bay - Chaos And The Calm There really is no getting around it. Other than Madonna’s dramatic fall and Kanye West’s controversial performance, this year’s BRIT Awards were a snoozefest. Even the absence of James Corden could not save the show, which was largely dominated by former winner of the Critics’ Choice Award Sam Smith. And that can only be good news for the new incumbent of the award, Hertfordshire singer-songwriter James Bay.

As the BRITs exist solely to reward commercial success, it was all rather predictable that Smith walked away with two awards, while Ed Sheeran unsurprisingly picked up two of his own. Again, this was more good news for 24-year-old Bay, who was able to sit back and enjoy the awards show safe in the knowledge that he already had his award in the bag and that it was likely to catapult him to huge commercial success.

Since its introduction in 2007, the BRITs Critics’ Choice award has always gone to the safest bet, with previous winners such as Adele, Florence And The Machine and Emeli Sandé all going on to achieve international success. There is nothing wrong with this, as such, and Bay will in all likelihood follow in their steps with his debut album, Chaos And The Calm, but that doesn’t stop the record itself sounding all rather predictable.

The signs were there from the moment second single Hold Back The River was released and started gaining traction in the charts. Following up his relatively mediocre performing first single Let It Go – which, incidentally, doesn’t sound too dissimilar to most of Sheeran’s output – Hold Back The River reached Number 8 on the UK Singles Chart, charming listeners with its infectious chorus and straightforward guitar melody.

“Tried to keep you close to me/ but life got in between,” Bay croons over the gently picked guitar strings, seemingly directing the romantic sentiment towards a former flame. It is nothing we haven’t heard before, but that rarely matters when searching for chart success these days. The song does exactly what it needs to do to make its mark, pulling at the heartstrings in the same way that arena-filling juggernaut Sheeran has mastered.

As for the rest of the record, it is very much hit and miss. When he gets it right, Bay can be perfectly enjoyable to listen to – demonstrating the potential that has also seen him finish second in the BBC’s Sound of 2015 poll. When We Were On Fire bounds along in a carefree manner that makes it one of the record’s standout moments, while opener Craving is a mid tempo rocker with just enough bite to justify its place.

Best Fake Smile is another irresistibly catchy composition – one that will certainly become a single sooner rather than later – with Bay displaying some welcome attitude through his direct lyrics: “You don’t have to wear your best fake smile/ don’t have to stand there and burn inside/ oh, oh, oh, if you don’t like it.” Then there’s Collide, which is probably the rockiest song on the record, drawing comparisons with American singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw’s own popular pop rock.

That said, there is no doubt that Bay’s debut is much more calm than it is chaos. And this is largely where the problems arise, with the wishy-washy, comforting acoustics of Move Together and Need The Sun To Break about as MOR as you can possibly get. The stripped down Scars is a better showing of Bay’s vulnerability, while closing number Incomplete sees the album finishing with a rather tame whimper.

Ultimately, Chaos And The Calm is a solid, if unspectacular, first effort from Bay. What it lacks in imagination and experiment, it partly makes up for with Bay’s confessional lyrics about the struggles he has endured to realise his ambitions. Yet, however well-meaning the record is, there is no getting away from the nagging sense that it is all a bit too safe and predictable.

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