Expressing complicated and hard-to-describe feelings through song is a staple of many successful singer-songwriters, and the bar continues to push higher with every successive generation of musicians. Such is the case with twenty-four year old James Bay and his epic debut album Chaos and the Calm, released this Tuesday via Republic Records. Chaos and the Calm presents a cohesive musical set from a fast-rising artist who throws his body and mind fully into every song.
Bay has been building up to this moment for years. The UK native/Neil Young lookalike released four EPs in the past two years since signing to Republic Records, starting with 2013’s The Dark of the Morning and continuing through this past January’s Other Sides. Musical highlights have included the heartfelt ballads “Let It Go” and “Move Together,” the gritty, blues-rock influenced “When We Were On Fire,” and the folk-inspired, harmony-laden “Hold Back The River.” Chaos and the Calm combines fully-produced versions of these songs and more, creating a finely-balanced ecosystem of singer/songwriter, folk and rock music with a constant focus on Bay’s clear, emotionally-charged voice.
Check out Atwood Magazine’s track-by-track review of Chaos and the Calm to learn more about the lyrical complexity, emotional power and musical depth of James Bay’s debut!
The emphatic electric guitar riff and heavily pounding drums that open Chaos and the Calm set the stage for an album that is different than anything James Bay has produced in the past, yet not unexpected: “Craving” is a soul-searching, beat driven ballad from a heavy-handed folk singer-songwriter discovering the emotional powers of a fully-stocked rock band. Bay’s illustrative lyrics lie at the core of the music, but it’s the way in which Bay manipulates these everyday words, – literally, descriptions of the mundane – through evocative singing and finely-tuned orchestration, that makes “Craving” a magical experience and the perfect entrance to James Bay’s debut album.
Walking through the traffic on a Monday / In the town I grew up
Shelter from the rain in every doorway / It’s dark and everyone’s numb
Kids are making faces in the bus lane / But nobody looks up
Everyone’s like the same as yesterday / Just like the ticking of clocks
And I’m craving, craving, craving something I can feel
Where do I go? What do I need? Is it ecstasy or is it fear?
Am I on my own? Am I even close?
‘Cause I’m craving, still craving something I can feel.
Hold Back The River
If you’re new to James Bay’s music, this is the song that will sell you on him. Not only is the fast-paced “Hold Back The River” swathed in multi-interpretational metaphor, but it is also a fantastic display of Bay’s vocal range and ear for emphatic harmony. “Hold Back The River” is also the title song off Bay’s third and most recent EP, whose success has helped catapult him to his current chart-topping position (Chaos and the Calm currently sits atop the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart)!
Let It Go
A James Bay ballad consists of: An acoustic guitar, wide-ranging dynamic music, impassioned lyrics, and the pouring of Bay’s heart into the song. Thus we learned on “Let It Go,” the title track to Bay’s second EP (of the same name), released in early 2014. Bay’s finest moments exist in his tightly-crafted ballads, and “Let It Go” is quiet, but for Bay’s clear, trembling voice. With minimal support, Bay channels his soul into the music, and out pops another masterpiece.
Listen: “Let It Go” – James Bay
If You Ever Want To Be In Love
A classic rock-styled song with a bounce in its step à la Rod Stewart, “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” highlights Bay’s impressive falsetto in its big chorus. While this is not a major track off the album, it shows the 70s side of Bay while fitting well in-between the slower “Let It Go” and the uptempo “Best Fake Smile.”
Best Fake Smile
Uptempo, electric and full-band is the way to go when you really want to make a big impression, which is exactly what Bay goes for on “Best Fake Smile.” Chaos and the Calm‘s first attempt at a pop standard, “Best Fake Smile” beats out most of the garbage on Top 40 these days. Clever lyrics, a headbanger beat, and an earworm chorus (No you don’t have to wear your best fake smile… Oh, oh, oh, if you don’t like it)
When We Were On Fire
James Bay began making a name for himself two years ago through his debut EP, The Dark Of The Morning, and this is the song that drove that EP home. “When We Were On Fire” is a gritty folk rock number with a super catchy chorus. For those who knew James Bay before Google did, “When We Were On Fire” was the clincher – it tied the knot, undeniably proving his unique musicianship and artistry.
Listen: “When We Were On Fire” (EP version) – James Bay
The album version of “When We Were On Fire” is not quite as breathtaking as the song was the first time around: The full band’s presence muffles the dynamic changes and acoustic flair that gave the song its beauty. I know I will warm to it as time goes on and I listen to the album time and time again, but sometimes, less is more. This is undoubtedly one of those times.
Now I know, I know
That we’re losing light, our love is dying
Out cold on the floor
Like a fallen star that shines no more
Take, take-a-me back to where we was before
When we were on fire, fire
Unlike “When We Were On Fire,” the slow-moving ballad “Move Together” greatly benefits from the full band. Bay’s voice maintaining center stage, the band adds a dimension of depth not present on the EP version. An accompanying strings section toward the song’s end propels “Move Together” (and James Bay) to a level beyond that of a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, and to that of a full band leader. With more now at his disposal, Bay is able to help his songs come to life with a vibrance not originally present on the EP versions of his songs – and in “Move Together,” he nails the arrangement.
“Scars” is halfway between a folk song and anthem: A slow burner, it features minimal instrumentation in the verses, focusing wholly on Bay’s voice until the choruses, where everything picks up in bombastic fashion. Bay lets the song go loose in the second half, which loses the folk and goes head-first into a rock ballad zone. Thankfully, the chorus is touching enough to buoy the song: “We live through scars this time / But I’ve made up my mind / We can’t leave us behind anymore.“
“Collide” marks an important uptempo shift for Chaos and the Calm. Propelled by an overdriven guitar riff, “Collide” stands out as a funk-inspired pop/rock song, with hints of Songs About Jane-era Maroon 5 peaking through in Bay’s explosive choruses. Coming off the heels of the heart-infused “Move Together” and “Scars,” Bay sounds like another artist altogether on “Collide”. He trades in the intimacy of a lightly-supported acoustic performance for the feverish strength of an electric band, proving his ability not only to pen a pop song, but also to pen a song specifically for a full band – “Collide” is one of the few tracks on Chaos and the Calm that really relies on the fully-produced band’s performance to make its intended impact. Its musical and sonic diversity are welcome after the slower ballads that precede it.
Though its beat and groove are certainly not representative of Chaos and the Calm as a whole, “Collide” presents an alternate side to James Bay and keeps the album alive and bouncing.
Get Out While You Can
“Get out, get out while you still can – don’t let the night slip through your hands,” sings Bay in this song’s electrifying chorus. Considering its song structure, “Get Out While You Can” could have been presented as a ballad, but Bay’s band gives the song a full, anthemic rock sound. However, whereas “Collide” leans toward pop and funk, “Get Out While You Can” is a Springsteen-esque rock song through and through. The anticipation vs. release playing out between the subtle verses and the booming chorus is tantalizing, and Bay pushes these musical peaks even further by fluidly switching between his gritty chest voice and his pure falsetto throughout the song. The loud and upbeat nature of “Get Out While You Can” is exciting: It’s nice to see James Bay exploring the possibilities of a full band’s accompaniment.
Need The Sun To Break
The acoustic ballad “Need The Sun To Break” finds Bay singing about hope and change in a pained voice that brings his lyrics to life. The third track from The Dark of the Morning to make it onto the album, “Need The Sun To Break” is treated with minimal band accompaniment similar to the instrumentation on “Move Together,” and the result is powerfully evocative. The vocal harmonies on the chorus are especially noteworthy for their sheer beauty.
Bay concludes his debut album with a soft and moving piece. “Incomplete” is as deep a folk ballad as one may find on Chaos And The Calm, and while there is certainly a tongue-in-cheek element to the song coming last, its placement is fitting for the album – especially one with so many ups and downs.
“Incomplete” starts softly with a single guitar and light percussion. Bay’s somber voice fills the empty spaces of the song, louder than the instruments but with an intimacy unlike any other track on the record:
I breathe in slow to compose myself
But the bleeding heart I left on the shelf
Started speeding now, bleeding half to death
‘Cause you’re here, and you’re all mine
Some of Bay’s lyrics are harder to make out than others, but every inflection is palpable: Bay pours his passion into this song, word by word, line by line. His imagery is vivid and clear as he moves to the bridge:
Scared of the hope in my head
It’s been making me sweat, but it turns out
You’re here with your head on my chest
I should’ve guessed…
In addition to a physical picture, Bay paints an emotional portrait. A subtle tension lines the song, growing in vividness while Bay’s voice remains clear and unwavering. “Incomplete” ebbs and flows, reaching a pinnacle in its chorus:
…That the world will turn and we’ll grow, we’ll learn how to be
To be incomplete
Loud as Chaos and The Calm’s entrance is, its exit is quiet, soft, and though the song’s title may beg to differ, conclusive.
Chaos and the Calm
Watch: “Let It Go” – James Bay
Listen to James Bay’s Chaos and the Calm on Spotify: