Jake Bugg: Shangri-La – review

From Nottingham to Malibu – Jake Bugg may not be just an ordinary lad any more, but his new album is pretty run of the mill

Jake Bugg's second album takes its title from the studio in which it was made. You can hardly blame him for wanting to draw attention to the place it was recorded. Two years after his debut album arrived, bearing gritty tales of drugs and violence on a Nottingham council estate, the 19-year-old finds himself making the follow-up on Morning View Drive, Malibu, with arguably the most famous producer in the world, Rick Rubin.

How has this happened? Bugg seems to think he was catapulted to platinum-selling fame because he represented a "genuine" and "natural" alternative to "X Factor shit". It's an idea that's easy to mock, not least because much of his debut album was co-written with a succession of songwriters-for-hire, including Matt Prime, also responsible for a string of hits by Victoria Beckham, Kylie Minogue and TV talent show winners Olly Murs, Liberty X and Will Young. Furthermore, with its faux-vinyl crackles and vocals lightly distorted – the sonic equivalent of distressing furniture to make it appear antique – it was, in its own way, as artfully constructed as any manufactured pop record. The more prosaic answer may simply be that Bugg is young, handsome, had some good songs – the songwriters-for-hire approach certainly paid off on the gorgeous melody of Broken – and a sound that harked back to the bit of the 60s that Britpop's Swinging London obsession ignored. Equal parts Merseybeat and Dylan circa Don't Think Twice It's Alright, Jake Bugg smacked of 1963, not a musical era much mined for inspiration in recent decades, other than by the La's. That meant his music simultaneously felt comfortingly familiar and had a degree of novelty: if you wouldn't exactly call his sound fresh, then it least it hadn't been warmed over and regurgitated umpteen times in the last 20 years.

The relative originality of copying music from 1963 rather than music from three years later is clearly not an idea that holds much sway with Rick Rubin, who one suspects is understandably more interested in making Bugg a star in the US than in the fine nuances of retro-fetishism in British alt-rock. On Shangri-La, Bugg's songs still largely fall into two categories: the ones that zip along in the fast-talking style of Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business, and the ballads, but Rubin does away with the antique affectations – not a bad idea in itself, if you've got something more original to replace them with. Instead he goes for an entirely straightforward, streamlined alt-rock production: the result, to UK ears at least, is to make Shangri-La sound more like a Britpop album than its predecessor, or – if you want to be more specific about your mainstream 90s indie subgenres – what would once have been called Noelrock: All Your Reasons lumbers along, and Messed Up Kids sounds remarkably like Cast.

It's not the only way in which Shangri-La recalls the 90s. Understated and occasionally a bit clumsy, the lyrics on Jake Bugg had a verité feel to them: Seen It All genuinely sounded like a teenager talking about seeing another teenager stabbed. You understand why Bugg wants to revisit the topic, but it's equally understandable why – after two years enjoying the fruits of stardom, complete with front-row seats at London Fashion Week and a spell squiring supermodel Cara Delevingne – the vignettes aren't as sharply drawn this time around. With Bugg self-consciously addressing a vast audience, the listener ends up faced with windy platitudes reminiscent of the golden wisdom of Richard Ashcroft – "it's a cold world"; "there's a lot of pain out there" – the charming gaucheness inflated into the kind of plonking portentousness that became Noel Gallagher's signature style around Be Here Now. Messed Up Kids attempts to conjure up an urban wasteland via the line, "The sky is pastel shades under breeze-block palisades." This clearly fancies itself as a striking poetic image: it's certainly striking, in as far as it doesn't make any sense. As you doubtless know – but Jake Bugg may not – a palisade is a kind of fence or wall. It's thus extremely hard to see how the sky, pastel-shaded or otherwise, can be underneath one, unless the song's narrator is standing on his head. This seems a deeply odd thing to be doing when you're hanging out with the messed-up kids on the corner selling their drugs and their bodies, but who knows what passes for cheap thrills among the feral youth of Broken Britain?

That said, there are reasons to like Shangri-La, not least the ballads, which are hushed, delicate, graced with vocal performances on which Bugg dials down his tendency to nasal mannerisms and, in the case of Me and You, and Pine Trees, possessed of melodies every bit as lovely as that of Broken. Elsewhere, Shangri-La bears out Bugg's insistence that he's "just a lad who writes tunes" a little too clearly: it sounds as ordinary as he claims to be.

• This article was amended on 20 December 2013 to remove a section that was based on a mishearing of a line in A Song About Love as "With your eyes should you cry in your bed?" In fact the words are "With your eyes shut you cry in your bed".


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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