James Bay - Chaos & The Calm

by Emily Pratten

After releasing three successful EPs and winning the Critics Choice Award at the BRITS this year (over the likes of Years & Years), I imagine people were expecting a lot from James Bay’s full-length debut, Chaos & The Calm - not to say that they’ll be disappointed. I really doubt that it’s good journalism to say this, but I think that fans of James Bay will like this album and people or are on the fence will be turned off. He’s a very talented young man, but he’s not groundbreaking.

I am personally an enormous fan of the song Hold Back The River, which is the second song on the album. Previously released as a single and featuring on PearShaped’s very own Listening Post, it’s upbeat and catchy and his voice is at it’s best. Let It Go and If You Ever Want To Be In Love follow the single, both songs from previous EPs, both are good, both feature similar tempos and similar vocal range. And this is a kind of pattern with this album, in that after a while the voice and the range and the lyrical content of longing and love becomes ever so slightly monotonous. He’s got a beautiful voice but unless you’re in love with it, I imagine it could become slightly boring.

Collide is a really good song - the guitar is bold and strong and the jazzy-blues style is a fresh change of pace, but it’s the only song where it really occurs with any level of success. I really dislike giving bad reviews and I don’t think I’m giving a scathing one, I’m just attempting to convey that like contemporary Tom Odell, it’s an album with a few really great stand out tracks and then several that fall a little short. It’s not captivating throughout - it’s safe and pleasant but as a result it’s fairly forgettable. It’s nothing like Hozier’s recent album, for example, which is dark and moody and angsty and takes a few creative risks here and there.

Chaos & The Calm is soulful and bluesy and full of the Americana soft-rock tropes we’ve come to expect. His voice is really lovely, for sure, but there’s not always the emotional depth you crave with singer-songwriters. Emotional depth is prevalent on Let It Go and a couple of others, but fails to deliver elsewhere. I would be very happy to listen to the album again or to have it on in the background while I did other things, but it’s not one to nurture heartstrings or that I’ll be enthusiastically recommending to every poor sod that I can force to listen to me (which I’ve been known to do, with varying levels of success).

There are choirs and kick-drums in various places, but for the most part this album is a lot less focused on the chaos and is instead chilling in the safe and mediocre realm of the calm. Which is great if that’s what floats your boat. It’d be interesting if he pushed himself outside of troubadour tropes to discover something a little less safe and a little more creatively daring.