Simple As This: Is Jake Bugg the New Bob Dylan?

Kaitlin Ebersol

 

To see him play live, you would hardly know that Jake Bugg is just a kid. Feet planted before the microphone, head bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his guitar strumming, he exudes the subdued confidence of a more seasoned performer. His voice – distinctively nasal, irresistibly British – carries strongly over the crowd, sounding impressively similar to his studio recordings. He strolls along the edge of the stage at intervals and glances casually about the room, as if to demonstrate just how easily this comes to him.

And, at the tender age of 19, with two well-reviewed albums and a growing fan base to his name, the English wunderkind clearly possesses a natural knack for music. Born and raised in Clifton, Nottingham, a notoriously crime-ridden area that Bugg describes repeatedly in his music, he first picked up the guitar at 12. Although enrolled in a music technology program during college, he dropped out at 16 because his teachers did not allow experimentation and because he wanted to write and perform his own songs.

His career took off after a performance at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival prompted Mercury Records to offer him a record contract on the spot. He was 17-years-old at the time. Two Brit Awards and two NME Awards later, Bugg has already established a significant reputation in the music industry. His style has quickly drawn comparisons to rockabilly and folk artists of the 50’s and 60’s, such as Bob Dylan, Donovan, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers, although his newer material bears more resemblance to alternative Brit-pop groups like Oasis and The Arctic Monkeys.

Bugg’s eponymous debut album, recorded under Mercury Records and released in the U.S. in April 2013, features 14 songs ranging from upbeat, early-rock-inspired anthems to mournful, sweeping love ballads. Considering his age, and considering that this represents his first stab at album-making, “Jake Bugg” is impressive. At its best, the tunes are infectious and the lyrics are simple yet sincere – remarkably insightful for a 17-year-old.

 

The first four tracks burst out of the gate with pent-up energy. “Lightning Bolt,” a toe-tapping melody reminiscent of early Beatles hits, considers the role of fate and the wisdom of seizing opportunities when they arise. “Two Fingers,” its upbeat drums disguising darker themes of drug use, poverty, and abuse, features the joyous declaration, “So I hold two fingers up to yesterday/ Light a cigarette and smoke it all away/ I got out, I got out alive.” In “Taste It,” he considers the bittersweet nature of leaving the past behind, and in “Seen It All,” a night of partying gone awry causes him to declare, “I swear to God I’ve seen it all/ Nothing shocks my anymore after tonight.” This is where Bugg excels, when talking honestly about his experiences of living in a rough neighborhood and the feelings that accompany growing up and leaving those experiences behind. Yet many of Bugg’s slower songs also ring true, as with the charming, acoustic “Simple As This,” about searching for meaning in life, or “Broken,” an emotionally raw description of Bugg’s desperation following a friend’s suicide.

 

Fast or slow, Bugg’s melodies harken back to the golden age of rock and roll, prompting critics to nickname him “the next Bob Dylan.” In fact, “Ballad of Mr. Jones,” a story about a man wrongly accused by a crooked jury, bears resemblance to Dylan’s early narrative songs (although Bugg never quite attains Dylan’s mastery of poetic language). “Trouble Town,” with lines like, “Stuck in speed bump city/ Where the only thing that’s pretty/ Is the thought of getting out,” and “Sitting on the pavement/ Boy you’ve missed your payment/ And they’re gonna find you soon,” sounds similar to Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album. And the simple, acoustic tracks, “Country Song,” and “Simple As This,” pay homage to folk heroes like Donovan and Paul Simon.                  

Still, the album is not perfect, and the first half stands out as markedly stronger than the second; at its worst, especially when he ruminates over his (limited, at 17) love life, Bugg’s writing wanders into dangerously self-indulgent territory, resulting in eye-roll-inducing lines like, “I’ll wait all on my own like a flower in the snow/ With just my shadow following me out into the cold.” To his credit, though, these lyrical blunders occur infrequently, as the majority of his tracks are narrative in style and only rarely veer into the sappy philosophizing of a teenager.

A mere seven months after the release of his first album, Jake Bugg released “Shangri La,” which he recorded with the renowned Rick Rubin in Malibu (in fact, the album is named after Rubin’s studio). “Shangri La” demonstrates a noticeable style evolution, both lyrically and musically; it is less folk and more indie rock, less Bob Dylan and more Arctic Monkeys. Yet this second album lacks the earnestness that made “Jake Bugg” so magical. His songs touch on familiar topics – his hometown, love, criticism of modern culture – but the sincerity of the first album, which captured the regard of so many critics and fans, seems to have dissolved and been replaced with something a bit more contrived.

Some of the most memorable songs on “Shangri La” incorporate Bugg’s newly-acquired punk sound, with its rapidly-delivered lyrics and shouted choruses over the pulsing of electric guitars. For instance, “There’s a Beast And We All Feed It” lists everything that is wrong with today’s society, and “What Doesn’t Kill You” finds the singer ruminating about life’s hardships.

In “Slumville Sunrise,” Bugg returns to his favorite topic, his hard-knock upbringing, and he declares what we all know about him by now: “This place is just not for me/ I say it all the time.” However, the album also features at least a couple of pleasant (if bland), slower songs, both on the topic of love. They include the sweetly optimistic “Me and You” and the soaring “A Song About Love.” Every once in a while, we even catch a glimpse of the old Jake in these new tracks. The acoustic song, “Pine Trees,” possesses a Donovan-esque quality in its simple melody, and the song, “The Storm Passes Away,” employs the forlorn tone and country rhythm of a Johnny Cash tune. However, an abundance of forgettable music overshadows these rare, genuine moments. Tracks like “All Your Reasons,” “Kitchen Table,” and “Simple Pleasures” sound uncomfortably like the songs you skip over on an Oasis album – dull, generic, uninspiring.

Whatever the reviews about his second album, one thing is for certain: Bugg is serious about the craft of music. He shies away from interviews and public appearances. Though he has accounts on Twitter and Instagram, he rarely updates them. Between songs at his concerts, the only banter he shares with the crowd is to announce the next title and the album it comes from. And this says it all. Bugg isn’t interested in the celebrity that accompanies a rock star’s life. He is here for the music.

For his second encore, Bugg plays Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My,” belting out, “Hey hey, my my/ Rock and roll can never die” over a cheering crowd. If Jake Bugg has anything to do with it, rock will live to see another day.

 

Author Bio:

Kaitlin Ebersol is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Comments

I agree with the general assessment of Jake Bugg in this article but I am stunned to see songs such as All Your Reasons, Kitchen Table and Simple Pleasures described as forgettable. I generally live on a diet of Bach cantatas and the like, and I would rate all three among the greatest songs I've ever heard in contemporary music. They do require a decent audio system, however, and they need to be listened to more often than once in order to fully grasp them. But forgettable is about the last thing they are.

Email: 
osipphilip@hotmail.com

Producing a second album of quality after 7 months is a rare achievment these days but not unusual for the 60s and late 70s in the UK. Some trackswould doubtlessly have benefited from more time but still a great achievement and well worth a listen

Email: 
whymarkc@gmail.com

No, he is not, I am twenty, and I saw Bob live and Jake, and was totally different.

Then talking about songs, Bob wrote all of his songs since he was seventeen, by himself. Jake on the other hand wrote only 4 songs on his first and second album, and songs like Lighting Bolt and Two Fingers, which is often compared with Dylan songwriting were written by Ian Archer. If you look at the songs like Country Song and Fire (2 songs in an album with 14 tracks)  you can clearly see the difference in songwriting, almost seems song Justin Bieber could write if instead of electro beats they gave him a guitar. To me Jake Bugg appeals like a great work done by managers, label guys and radio hosts in publicity and propaganda hailing him as the New Dylan, just because he plays guitar, smokes a cigarette and sings with his nose.

Email: 
Live@live.com

To reply to Frank: I too think that the Dylan-comparisons are often superficial. But what they are ultimately about is that people hear something very special in Jake, and search for words to express that. I think that Bob Dylan's and Jake's music are nothing alike, and that the difference is to Jake’s favour. And then I do not think of vocal qualities or other such relatively superficial features. I think of musical quality (melody etc.). Contemporary artists, even very good ones such as Dylan, usually get me running back to Bach (and to a lesser extent Beethoven) fairly soon, and that has been so for twenty years or longer (I am forty). But Jake is an exception and I truly believe that he is up there with the really greats. That may seem preposterous but for me it’s been lived experience ever since I got to know him. I’ve never been impressed by a contemporary artist as much – not even nearly as much. I also do not agree at all that, for example, Country Song or Fire are lacking in musical quality. They are deceptive in that they work with very simple means such as three-chord schemes, but they work miracles with these means. I have heard them hundreds of times by now and they only get stronger. And to me, this is true for basically every other Jake Bugg song as well, and there are a whole lot that he wrote by himself (from age 15 or so) – but not a single weak one. (Moreover, I strongly suspect that with the co-written songs, Jake is almost entirely responsible for the musical part but only to a lesser extent for the lyrics – but that is a discussion for another occasion). In my view, Jake Bugg is the best that could have happened to music.

Email: 
osipphilip@hotmail.com

I have to agree with Osip P that songs like Kitchen Table are really the best on the album. They are not as immediately appealing as the easier to like, more up-beat numbers you mention, but they have real depth and grow on repetition. Kitchen Table, in particular, is an amazing achievement, especially for one so young. Look carefully at the words - they are clearly a bitingly honest reaction to a real-life very painful situation. His interviews are seldom very forthcoming about his songs, but he did let slip recently that this song is about a break-up with a girl much older than him that happened a few years ago (I'm guessing when he was 16-ish??). The relative nonchalance of the music is dislike served cold. It is yet another example of him turning real events from his own life into masterful songs - two prime examples from the first album are Seen It All and Two Fingers.

I have to disagree with Frank's comments above. Bugg recorded his second album when he was a few months past his 19th birthday - by the same age Dylan (whom I revere above all others) had written almost nothing, and what he had penned was highly derivative. There were only two originals on his first album (recorded November 1961 when he was 6 months past his 20th birthday). Even Blowin In The Wind on his third album "borrows" most of its tune (from No More Auction Block) - a common enough practice in Folk music. All his truly great work was well in the future. Bugg, by contrast, already had over 40 original songs to his name well before his 20th birthday, about half being solus compositions, and he is definitely the senior composing partner in almost all of the rest (witness his comments in interview about the composition of Broken, for example). The point is that to compare the whole life  work of Dylan with just early Bugg is manifestly unfair - and on a like-for-like basis Bugg comes off the better, which is not to say he will ever match Dylan for poetry. But why should he? He has said often enough that he isn't trying to be another Dylan.

Email: 
john.bullimore@btinternet.com

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