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James Bay: Chaos and the Calm

On Chaos and the Calm,, singer/songwriter James Bay delivers a sound debut album that's never earth-shattering.

James Bay

Chaos and the Calm

Label: Republic
US Release Date: 2015-03-23
UK Release Date: 2015-03-23
Label website
Artist website

"Everyone's life the same as yesterday / Just like the ticking of clocks." British singer/songwriter James Bay "hits the nail right on the head" on the aforementioned lyric, which applies to everything, specifically how people live their lives worldwide. It is clever, relatable moments such as 'life's rut' isolated here that makes Bay's debut Chaos and the Calm a pleasant listen with tremendous potential. Bay is an artist who thrives off of passion and raw emotion as opposed to being particularly complex or verbose. This success at times can also prove a con, given the fact that while Chaos and the Calm benefits from its personal connections, it doesn't necessarily tread new ground.

"Craving" from which the opening quote was lifted establishes Bay's artistry from the get-go, presenting him as gritty, invested, and ambitious. Couple Bay's artistic ambition with that which he sings of and the first impression is a solid punch, whether it's a knockout or not. Arguably, the album's second statement is more intriguing on "Hold Back the River", a natural segue.

"Hold Back the River" benefits from more poetic, metaphorically driven songwriting, which speaks upon how quickly life passes by. The balance of this particular song is impressive because Bay manages to "have his cake and eat it too" by diving deeper yet maintaining a connection. "Let It Go" caps off the compelling opening stretch, finding Bay continuing to pour out his soul with incredible authenticity. His vocal poise on the verses are contrasted by 'going for it' on the heartfelt refrain.

"If You Ever Want to Be In Love" doesn't supersede the powerful trio preceding it, but also doesn't slouch aka 'kill the vibe'. The up-tempo "Best Fake Smile" tops it on groove alone, not to mention feisty, high-energy vocals from Bay. The approach definitely fits the aggressive record, which denounces fakeness: "And you don't have to care so don't pretend / Nobody needs a best fake friend / Oh, oh, oh, don't hide it."

Love is the subject of "When We Were on Fire", where Bay wishes to return when the love was potent as opposed to "…Dying / Out cold on the floor." "Move Together" complements the former in regards to subject – complexity of love – yet contrasting with a slower, more somber tempo. As slow as "Move Together" it isn't a drag to listen to given the sincerity of Bay and the beauty of the record. Is "Move Together" the second coming? No, but it is a lovely ballad about love.

"Scars" doesn't instantly endear itself – it must be given the chance to bloom. Bay doesn't lay out all of his cards from the jump, hence, it takes the majority of the song to percolate and reach its peak. That peak is predictable, but had "Scars" not achieved it, it would've been an unpredictable disappointment. Call it a Catch-22, "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Unsurprisingly, "Collide" goes the opposite direction of "Scars" revealing the deck early on. Calling "Collide" mediocre would be an overstatement, but compared to strongest songs, "Collide" is simply less compelling.

Of the closing trio of songs, "Get Out While You Can" is easily the selling point, characterized by a classic rock sound. It doesn't achieve quite the same magic as a classic itself, but it definitely represents one of the better moments of a sound debut. As for the final two cuts – "Need the Sun to Break" and "Incomplete" – they fail to make the top echelon of Chaos and the Calm. Don't call it a diss – they just don't quite have the same oomph or enthusiasm of the best.

Ultimately, James Bay checks off most of boxes on Chaos and the Calm. He has a sensational voice, he has unquestionable passion, and even when the material is less alluring, his potential still shines through. Still, Bay is unable to ever quite match the sheer fire of opening stretch of the album, which is a bit of a bummer. And revisiting that whole matter of treading new ground, well it just doesn't happen. Still, the pieces are just too good to resist – Bay has plenty to offer.


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