James Bay channels ‘80s pop-rock nostalgia on fun but derivative ‘Electric Light’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

When English singer-songwriter sensation James Bay dropped his debut album, the folksy, Americana-driven commercial success Chaos and the Calm back in 2015, few would have imagined that his next creative venture would diverge so heavily in both style and substance.

Bay’s sophomore studio album, Electric Light, is far more energetic, heavily produced and genre-traversing. With his newest release, Bay abandons the long-haired, hat-donning acoustic crooner persona associated with radio hits such as “Hold Back The River” and “Let It Go” in favor of a slick, glam-rock aesthetic. The album mirrors this physical reinvention to much success. Bay pulls inspiration from a variety of iconic and contemporary musical influences to craft a collection of catchy, emotional and engaging — albeit unoriginal — tunes.

Electric Light opens with a brief, blurry introduction called “Intro,” which involves a conversation between a man and woman. The woman offers an invitation to “go back” and revisit what we can assume is the couple’s romantic history, and the conversation slowly dissolves as the music begins. While the loose plot thread of this nebulous romance serves to connect the songs of the album to each other, the woman’s invitation functions more effectively as a sonic throwback, since the rest of Electric Light is a rewind through recognizable pop-rock motifs of the 1980s through the 2000s.

The first song on the album, “Wasted on Each Other,” carries a surprising romantic angst. The dark sound of the electric chords in the background are distinctly reminiscent of the Arctic Monkeys, but cliched lyrics such as “We can try to stop this bruising, we can be like novocaine” would be less disappointing if Bay hadn’t previously established himself as a talented wordsmith whose debut included far more pensive, less predictable lyrics such as “Sirens and smoke remind us / Maybe the world won’t find us.” Coupled with the distinct autotune of Bay’s vocals in the chorus, “Wasted On Each Other” establishes early on through its jarring sound and lyrics that the album is an unexpected musical departure.

Several other tracks on the album also effectively invoke the sounds of established rock musicians. Bay has noted in an interview that he was inspired by records from David Bowie and Prince, and it shows — the dramatic, steady rock sounds of “Wild Love” and “Slide” reflect some of those musicians’ most iconic moments.

Meanwhile, several up-tempo tracks from Electric Light are reminiscent of new wave rock artists such as Blondie and Duran Duran. The most notable of these tracks — “Pink Lemonade,” “Just For Tonight” and “Wanderlust” — infuse the album with the fitting sense of its namesake “electric light”: an electronic, energetic instrumental sound with an optimistic innocence and bliss.

While most of these songs are admittedly quite infectious and effective musical homages, they do little to reflect or advance Bay’s own style or artistic abilities. Moreover, the album as a whole lacks tonal or musical consistency. The modern folk-rock song “In My Head,” is largely in line with Bay’s original favored genre, but comes off as a glaring outlier halfway through Electric Light.

This is why the most impressive songs from the album are those that serve to progress Bay’s sound rather than keep it stagnant, while still maintaining Bay’s signature musical aspects. “Us” and “Fade Out” maintain the modern “electric” sound while still highlighting Bay’s lyrical and vocal abilities. They’re standouts, samples of what Electric Light could have been if Bay chose to reinvent himself this early in his career without relying so heavily on the work of other artists.

Electric Light is a comforting, easy-to-listen-to album, a modern alternative soundtrack to a John Hughes movie. While Bay could have done more to expand upon his artistry in the immediate follow-up to his debut, its highlights serve as reassurance that the talented young musician’s best is yet to come.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].