Republic Records · May 18, 2018
In this new era for James Bay, he trades fedoras and button-ups for mesh and leather: a change that is just as evident in the music. His sophomore album, Electric Light, comes four years after his wildly successful debut, Chaos and the Calm. Four years seems like a lifetime in modern music, so it makes sense that Bay’s music would intensely evolve. Electric Light is genre-bending, and while some may say it sounds busy, I’d rather say it sounds eclectic. Artists aren’t defined by genre in 2018, and Bay allows his music to flow in and out from tropical house to Ed Sheeran-type pop melodies. Electric Light feels very much electric, and while I commend Bay for experimenting with so many different sounds, he does falter too far from his original folky sound at times.
Bay sounds most like this new and improved version of himself when he lets the folk mesh with his new tastes. On ‘Wanderlust,’ you can hear the vocal influences from Chaos and the Calm, but the quick guitar is a new take on Bay’s mostly acoustic debut album. ‘Wanderlust’ is just a fun song at its core, which is something that was really missing from his debut. The biggest surprise from Electric Light comes from the R&B-influenced ‘Fade Out,’ a track that’s Justin Timberlake if Justin Timberlake was less boy band and more indie rock. Bay’s falsetto shines the best on this particular song, flowing effortlessly and drawling the lyrics. I dare anyone to listen to it and not bop along. Another head-bopping moment comes on the summer anthem ‘Pink Lemonade’ — if sunshine made a noise, I imagine it would be this song. The contrast between the quick beat and Bay’s nonchalant, slow vocals make him seem cool and almost unreachable at points.
At times, you can actually hear the direct influences on Electric Light from other popular artists. The opening guitar on ‘Wasted On Each Other’ is a clear (almost too clear) nod to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘R U Mine?’ The distinction from Arctic Monkeys comes with Bay’s falsetto over gritty guitar in the chorus. It’s a strong and interesting opener to an album that takes heavy turns from its predecessor. On ‘I Found You,’ Bay channels Ed Sheeran’s romantic melodies, but ultimately ends up complicating this simple style too much with oddly placed auto-tune and an overbearing chorus. However, Bay successfully places these off-kilter sounds on the Bleachers-influenced ‘In My Head;’ he almost raps on the verses and it’s definitely weird, but he confidently accepts the strangeness.
There are lyrics on other songs that are meant to shine, and although they are beautifully uplifting, I find it difficult to believe Bay when he sings them. On ‘Us’, he takes a hand at an almost political message when he sings in the chorus, “I believe in something / I believe in us,” but the vagueness of this statement makes him seem distant and unbelievable. In an album where the lyrics aren’t forefront for most of the tracks, it’s hard to relate to an artist that never lets the listener in. And even though his voice sounds technically good, it’s almost too perfect with no empathy behind it.
Electric Light is enigmatic at its core, trying to combine several genres into one coherent album. But when we’ve waited four years for Bay’s follow up to Chaos and the Calm, I expected nothing less. Although he definitely does not have a future in every genre he plays with on this album, Bay sets himself up to have long career as long as he harnesses his creativity.