Jake Bugg, ‘Jake Bugg’ – Album Review
It’s not too difficult to forgive the British music press’ typically overenthusiastic response to Jake Bugg’s self-titled debut album. With so much prefabricated pop polluting the airwaves these days, what’s not to like about a 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Nottingham who has a serious thing for pre-‘Blonde on Blonde’ Bob Dylan and pre-burnout Oasis? Apparently, many of their countrymen feel the same way: ‘Jake Bugg’ reached No. 1 on the U.K. chart when it was released in October.
Here in the U.S., we’re getting used to Brits co-opting retro-leaning American folk music. Mumford & Sons won a Grammy for their ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’-influenced bluegrass, and there’s an entire tube of earnest troubadours just waiting to ship their acoustic guitars overseas for old-school hoedowns on U.S. soil. But Bugg is more Billy Bragg than Mumford, an impassioned singer-songwriter who covers cultural realism and personal narratives with equal dexterity.
On songs like ‘Lightning Bolt’ and ‘Taste It,’ Bugg sounds like Dylan when he first plugged in, or Donovan (whom Bugg has singled out as a major influence) right after Dylan’s electric conversion. He’s playful, biting and an assiduous student of artists who came before him.
Other times, Bugg slips into storytelling mode, drawing from his teenage wasteland. ‘I drink to remember, I smoke to forget,’ he announces in the shuffling ‘Two Fingers,’ which borrows as much from ‘90s Britpop as it does ‘60s folk-rock. And on the short and sweet acoustic cut ‘Country Song,’ he sketches a gray-toned outline of rainy-day wistfulness.
When Bugg locks into a lyrical or musical groove, he’s really good. But when he doesn’t, he’s kinda boring. He’s also somewhat one-note in his songwriting. Several of the songs detail nights spent smoking, drinking and stumbling along city streets. Granted, his youth is shaping his writing at this point, and his worldview isn’t exactly an expansive one. Bugg’s music could lead to redundancy (just ask Taylor Swift) or to a wide-open landscape that bends to his will (Swift again). For now, it houses a portrait of boyish anxiety in all its lively, abundant uneasiness.