Time and time again those hungry vultures of industry start circling the long-dead carcass of the 60’s in search of a little strip of carrion that’s yet to be regurgitated upon the masses. These days, it’s the early years of fingerpickin’ American folk and blues that’s being stripped off the bone and repackaged for mass consumption. In the wake of big hits from your Mumford and Lumineers comes Nottingham’s own Jake Bugg, a teenager who’s already been dubbed ‘the new Dylan’ by people who presumably wouldn’t recognize a copy of Bringing It All Back Home if someone smacked it in their faces.
This new release shows us a beefier, more electric side of the nineteen-year old and although no one will be shouting ‘Judas!’ as Bugg plugs in on his U.K tour, one can be sure that at least thirty pieces of silver went in to the production. But let’s ignore the inescapable hype drummed up for the release, Rick Rubin manning the controls and the fact that Bugg wrote the album with top industry songwriters. Whatever the young man’s bankability, music is always just music.
Shangri-La begins with a bluesy, foot-stompin’ jaunt called ‘There’s A Beast And We All Feed It’ that’s as rousing as it is fast. There is a crunchy saturation to the production that lends itself well to the revivalism of the tune. Our main man hollers his way through the vocals like a tiny gospel preacher.
There’s a heavy air of antiquity around Jake Bugg’s whole being for most of the record, even in live performances the timbre of his voice is so old-fashioned that one suspects he at some point swallowed a Victrola phonograph whole. On ’Slumville Sunrise’, Bugg blowtorches together a Sheffieldian verse with a ridiculously country chorus, complete with cowboy twang and shuffling drums. It’s sort of like listening to a tobacco-spittin’ rodeo cowboy getting a young Alex Turner in a headlock. The guitar work is indisputably professional; Bugg’s shuffling chords at all times accompanied by wonderfully executed licks, the logical handiwork of weathered pros.
‘A Song About Love’, sitting comfortably in the middle of the album, starts off with an absolutely gorgeous little verse but soon explodes into the folky equivalent of a late 80’s power ballad with some Oasis thrown in for good measure. These tried and true sentimental tropes will surely have Bugg’s young audience waving their lit smartphones from side to side but carry no meaning whatsoever.
Here’s the thing; although these songs are all perfectly written, performed and recorded, something about it just irks. When Bugg is not co-opting folk, pop or country tunes from the long distant past, he’s sounding like the indie haircuts of a few years ago. Every song is more a quilt of influences than an actual composition, no matter how nicely sewn they might be. At least the last track had a sort of dark, streetwise edge to the lyrics, giving it some depth and mystery.
So while one definitely has a pleasant enough time sitting through Shangri-La, the record’s just remains a derivative appropriation of the real thing. To the target audience however, Jake Bugg’s old school swag will surely come off as deftly counter-cultural. Maybe, one hopes, this will lead them to search out the origins of these sounds, making Shangri-La the musical equivalent of those easy-to-tie elastic shoe laces.