Because of his youth and mop-topped hairdo, 19-year-old Jake Bugg could easily pass for a member of One Direction. However, after listening to the scraggly retro rock of his 2012 self-titled debut album, all he seemed to have in common with that band was that he hails from Britain. And while Bugg’s second album, Shangri La, released last week, does offer a bit of newly mined pop sheen that brings him closer to the One Direction lads, it also cements Bugg’s place as a fresh voice in rock and shows admirable growth.
While Bugg’s debut had a number of solid songs (including the unshakably catchy single “Lightning Bolt”) and showcased his unique voice, Shangri La proves that Bugg’s songwriting abilities have improved by leaps and bounds. From the rambling, Bob Dylan–esque opening track, “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It”, to the gentle twang of the album closer, “Storm Passes Away”, Bugg tries on a plethora of influences and manages to leave a hugely enjoyable collection of songs in his wake.
Oddly, Shangri La’s lead singles, “What Doesn’t Kill You” and “Slumville Sunrise”, are among the less compelling tracks on the album. While they’re catchy, rabble-rousing little rock ditties, they feel more like an extension of the snot-nosed garage rock of Bugg’s first album. It’s when Bugg takes risks here that the depth of his songwriting shows itself.
“Me and You” is the album’s first truly revealing moment, offering acoustic guitar strums, lovesick lyrics, and a sweetly melodic chorus. Bugg’s voice shows off a pleasant lilt instead of its usual snarl, and it feels like we’re watching him transition from a smartass teenager to an adult willing to reveal new sides of himself for the first time.
However, it’s not just the soft acoustic ballads on Shangri La that provide moments of revelation. On the album’s penultimate track, “Simple Pleasures”, Bugg fully embraces his Britpop influences and produces a swirling guitar epic nearly on par with Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova”. This kind of plaintive, hazy rock with a massive chorus suits Bugg perfectly, and in spite of all the recent comparisons between Bugg and Dylan, this track shows that Bugg may be more closely influenced by the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft than anyone else.
Bugg also has super-producer Rick Rubin on his side this time around, and the influence is apparent. Some listeners may recoil at the polish and high production values on the album, which occasionally seem at odds with Bugg’s otherwise raw sound. This is perhaps most clear on the sweeping ballad “A Song About Love”, which, while melodically lovely, feels oddly generic with its acoustic flourishes and pitter-patter drum beat. It’s one of the few tracks on Shangri La that gives the impression of having been tinkered with so much that it’s lost its initial spark.
Bugg has also pulled in a few high-profile writing partners; Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs gives him a welcome hand on the hooky “Messed Up Kids”, which tells a plainspoken tale of a number of local characters who seem to be close to Bugg’s own heart and has an infectious guitar riff to boot.
Bugg is still very young, and there’s likely more room for him to grow. But Shangri La is a highly promising step in the young rocker’s career. Considering the media attention that’s starting to swirl around him, he seems to be well on his way to becoming a prominent voice in popular music, and Shangri La shows that the fuss is well-deserved. MMMM