September 2012 I casually checked out something called iTunes Festival on the Apple TV home screen and accidentally discovered Jake Bugg. The feeling was electric. Kinda like when I saw Tracy Chapman open for John Martyn in Manchester in 1988 three months before her breakthrough appearance at the Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley Stadium in London – everyone in that northern club knew we had just seen a major talent. Bugg’s debut album came out in October and it did not disappoint. Everything that made his iTunes performance amazing was there. Shockingly, the album opened at number one on the British charts.
On My One
Many have written about Jake Bugg’s youth, his songs, guitar playing, and singing style, but what struck me as special about Bugg was his authenticity. His songs were all about working class life in middling England in the new millennium, something overlooked in most of popular culture. Indeed, the absence of any cultural mirror for the experiences of working class youth in most western countries makes the occasional mention stand out in stark relief. Bugg’s debut album gave voice to a generation left behind by the economy and the political class in songs like “Two Fingers,” “Seen It All,” and “Trouble Town.” Sure, some fans and music writers just listened esthetically, hearing the folk, folk blues, and rudimentary rock and roll sound, but the ability to speak authentically about his community’s class experience touched a nerve for those who were listening. However, after touring with the album for over a year, Bugg told journalists he doubted he could write about such experiences anymore because his life had changed so much.
Thankfully, Bugg was wrong, and his follow up record, Shangri La, kept developing themes of social inequality and class privilege (or the lack thereof) on tracks like “Messed Up Kids,” “Slumville Sunrise,” and “Kingpin.” Bugg’s style was not that of the protest singer or Clash-like sloganeering, but more of an artist’s rendering, a portrait of the world as he saw it. And, like Billy Bragg (another class-influenced singer-songwriter), he also wrote great love songs.
Bugg’s new album, On My One, is almost out and it appears to be similar to and different from his earlier material. The social themes remain but he pushes himself artistically into new genres. Growing up in the new century nobody consumes just one style of music so it was hardly surprising that Bugg’s talent could not be contained in just a few styles. “On My One” evokes the lonely solo acoustic guitar sound of Don McLean’s American Pie album, specifically “Vincent” and “Till Tomorrow,” while drawing from Bugg’s experience as a performer on tour. “Love, Hope and Misery” confirms Bugg’s talent for remaking the American blues ballad in his own style. But my favourite amongst the currently available selections from the record is “Bitter Salt,” a song unlike anything Bugg has done to date, a catchy poprock effort with a punchy arrangement and solid hooks.
Though reviewers tend to suggest that Bugg is rather subdued in concert, he is well worth the ticket price if you can see him on tour. Find out about his shows and recordings on his website and Facebook page.