Album Review: James Bay, Chaos and the Calm
Teenage Wasteland. Wild Youth. Roaring 20s. Our coming-of-age years have been romanticized to such an extent that destruction has become synonymous with desire, stability with stagnancy. You haven’t lived if you haven’t fucked up big at least a few times over. But the ugly truth is that the twenties isn’t such a glorious time. Those supposedly exotic years are more like a blissful purgatory, like a boat floating on a serene creek separating optimism from disillusionment. Your dreams have amassed too much force for the life you knew, and the life you will know hasn’t yet shattered your lofty expectations.
Navigating through the emotional traps of youth is like walking a tightrope. As long as you stare intently only at your feet, you’ll stay in that blissful purgatory and take life as it goes. But my eyes are always wandering, behind my shoulder down memory lane and up, way up ahead, into stormy skies and distant stars that spell nothing but disaster.
That’s why I can’t stop listening to Chaos and the Calm, the debut studio album by English singer-songwriter James Bay. It’s a twelve-track album bursting with desire, courage, excitement, loneliness, heartbreak, and love, the emotion more powerful and prevalent than any other during those complicated years. It’s an homage to all the joys and pitfalls of growing up. It’s an unfiltered, intimate portrait of a changing mind – confronting the uncertainty of the near future (Move Together) and the pain of separation (Scars); reflecting on relationships gone awry (Let it Go) and the claustrophobic frustration of being ensnared in a hometown he had outgrown (Craving).
James Bay isn’t a household name, but he’s soaring to superstardom faster than Stay With Me hit number 1. A year ago he was busking at Brighton, playing at open mics, and opening for Hozier. Now he’s selling out arenas across the world and opening for Taylor Swift in front of 50k fans. It won’t be all that surprising if he follows the same Grammy-sweeping path as Sam Smith.
An acoustic powerhouse who blends bluesy riffs with confessional lyrics and plaintive vocals, Bay effortlessly weaves soul, blues, and indie rock in an album full of heart. Nowhere is his composite style more evident than in Hold Back the River, the gem of the album and the highly anticipated closer at concerts. The preachy, uplifting single is highlighted by progressive tempo and seamless transitions from a smoother lower register to rougher aching falsettos.
Just as compelling as its preachy chorus is the tinge of nostalgia prevalent throughout the album: “Once upon a different life/We rode our bikes into the sky/But now we’re caught against the tide/Those distant days all flashing by.” It’s echoed in the sense of yearning from Let it Go: “Trying to fit your hand inside of mine / When we know it just don’t belong/There’s no force on earth/Could me feel right.”
You leave a past you’re sick of to pursue the future of your dreams. What if you get lost chasing those dreams? What if the road gets too tough and all you want to do is return to the home you escaped? Maybe feeling lost and confused is what we twenty-somethings have in common.
Maybe we’re all just craving something we can feel.