[3 February 2014]
Where did it go? The pure rush of “Lightning Bolt”? The aching, nostalgia of “Simple As This”? The warm afterglow of “Broken”? From the first bouncy notes of Shangri La, it’s clear that Rick Rubin declined (somewhat contrary to his usual approach) to strip away sound and instead felt inclined to add more. Why, exactly, are we bopping our heads to “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It”? One wonders whether Rubin even gave Bugg’s dark, thoughtful lyrics a read before laying down the arrangement; either way, in no universe does Bugg’s intoning, “There’s a beast eating every bit of beauty / And, yes, we all feed it” amidst shimmying bass and bright electric guitar make any sense.
The takeaway here is that while Bugg’s debut album felt genuine, Shangri La feels forced and awkward. And despite it being a smug and silly point of reference (and, I’ll admit, because the shadow of Dylan hangs heavy on Bugg), I can’t help but feel that this second album amounts to some weird 21st-century equivalent of Bugg “plugging in”. Granted, the only ‘60s contingent bound to be perturbed by Rubin’s ambitious tinkering isn’t the Seeger-led folkies—but rather anyone out there hoping for a British pop revival. Indeed, Bugg’s first album promised a young singer-songwriter in hot pursuit of not only the brothers Gallagher but the brothers Davies as well. The album also promised a performer who didn’t just vaguely “have” his influences, but a performer with a pretty good idea of how to leverage them to his advantage.
But the promise evinced by the eponymous album is undercut here by crassness—those snare hits at the beginning of “Kingpin”? The lack of self-awareness is staggering. The bright spots here are the places where Bugg (and Rubin, presumably) drop the rock ‘n’ roll pretensions, and let the songs breathe. I’m referring, mostly, to the ballads, especially “Me and You” and “Pine Trees”, which are lovely. Taking all the tunes together, the result is something not unlike post-Be Here Now Oasis: a warm, friendly collection of tunes without much of a bite. Case in point might be the meandering “All Your Reasons”, in which electric guitars are pinned up against the melody, insistently muddying the mix and dragging the whole song down.
And as much as the album’s production seems to (want to) suggest Bugg’s artistic growth, the songs, when you pick them apart, don’t show much in the way of maturation. If Bugg came across on the first album as beguiled and innocent, we could forgive him. When he claims, “Nothing shocks me after tonight” on “Seen It All”, it’s just precious enough to smugly wince at. (He’s so young! How adorable!) But when Bugg is still shocked by things on Shangri La, particularly on “Messed Up Kids”, which describes a group of strung-out kids on a street corner, he shifts from cute to crass.
For Chrissakes, that attitude of wide-eyed wonder shows up even in the album’s title—fair, you’re allowed to be momentarily transfixed by sharing (not at the same time, mind you) studio space with the likes of Clapton, Adele, and Metallica, among other luminaries—but don’t title your album after the space. In a New York Times interview, Bugg explains to reporter Stacey Anderson, “‘Shangri La’ means a place that’s peaceful.” Well, as the late James Hilton would be quick to point out, it’s a little more complicated than that—Bugg should think twice about staying there too long.