Album Review: James Bay – Chaos and the Calm

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On Thursday 6th May, 1937, the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg exploded while attempting to moor on its dock in New Jersey. Even almost 80 years on, its fiery demise is an iconic image, capturing the destruction of an invention which pushed the physics of flight to their limit.

There’s something admirable about such a grand failure. Industrious people strove to create a leviathan: an airship larger than any before, the height of opulence and luxury. Sadly it ended in disaster, but at least they were unafraid to dream big.

If James Bay’s debut album were an air disaster, it wouldn’t be the Hindenburg. It would be a really shit paper plane, one that’s been folded wrong and inevitably nosedives into the carpet the instant it leaves your hand. It’s not so much a Shakespearean tale of hubris as a damp squib of a Debut Album™, so intensely focus-grouped and polished that any traces of personality and artistic endeavour have been long since scrubbed away.

Sure, ‘Hold back the River’ is a perfectly solid pop-rock song and there’s some jaunty tambourine on ‘Best Fake Smile’ but Chaos and the Calm is so devoid of character that any Topman model who can strum three chords could have made this record. Some of them probably did. Somewhere in the basement of Universal Records there’s probably tanks full of James Bay doubles, like the last scene in The Prestige, all sacrificed to get their one counterpart into the glove compartment of every Asda-goer who picks up some fairly catchy indie-pop strumming and faux-emotional balladry with their Tic Tacs on the way to the till.

So there you have it, a basically pleasant record whose failure to conceive a world outside its own limited horizons offers six months of chart stardom and an eternity of wishing for something more. Maybe Neil Young (and the Hindenburg’s architects) were right: it’s better to burn out than fade away.

[Max Sefton – @MaxSefton]

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