Review: Jake Bugg - 'Hearts That Strain'
An American country rock-opera that showcases his bravest work.
Upon the release of his self-titled debut album in 2012, critics may have been routing for Jake Bugg to initiate the third British Invasion. Regrettably, such overbearing expectations appear to have framed him for merely lukewarm success, with the reception of 'Shangri La' (2013) being limited to its predecessor's credits and 'On My One' (2016), as an unsettled collection of songs from a questionable attempt to branch out the aesthetics of his musicianship. However, with Dan Auerbach's complimentary contribution on guitar and the vibrancy that comes with recording in Nashville as the home of country music, the singer-songwriter from Nottingham, through further exemplifying his Dylan influence, has succeeded in moving away from the tales of a figuratively quarantined council estate to tell the tales of an intensely amorous 'country and western' adventure. The result, 'Hearts Of Strain' (2017), could be justified as his most engaging album to date.
Like 'On My One', 'Hearts Of Strain' is built on the exploration of a more eclectic range of genres: 'How Soon The Dawn' and 'Bigger Lover' both flirt with the renowned bossa rhythms, and the upbeat 'Southern Rain' borrows stylistic elements from the mellower side of bluegrass, similarly to Alison Krauss and Union Station. Normality is somewhat resumed in the upbeat 'In The Event Of My Demise', maybe suggesting that he is attempting to not entirely abandon the anthemic post-Britpop traits of his earlier work. His vocal delivery in 'oh no, look at them go, didn't they love me so?' in the chorus could surprisingly be perceived as a combination of Liam Gallagher's Mancunian drawl and the psychedelic pitch drifting of early Syd Barrett. This however, serving only as a teaser for the more dramatic features to come.
The most notable shift, perhaps, lies in the increased emphasis on production and arrangement, which places this album on a significant sonic pedestal compared to all previous releases that have characteristically rougher sounds. As well as being, arguably, his most personal and intimate song to date lyric-wise, the string sections in the ballad 'Man On The Stage' are as delicately enthralling as Lana Del Rey's 'Video Games'. Adding considerable strength to a controlled and passionate delivery to signify new heights of tonal awareness and ambition. This is also highly relevant to the haunting self-titled track, 'Hearts That Strain', which could be described as his most Dylan-inspired number to date. The track also mirrors the tone of a Dock Boggs murder ballad to further showcase his purposeful shift to the classic Americana based attributes of his repertoire. In light of this, the virtually ever-present slide guitar adds a fine touch to this theme from start to finish - perhaps an Auerbach contribution. Most effectively encapsulated in the concluding track 'Every Colour In The World' alongside a meditative piano ostinato, which could be interpreted to offer analogous reflection upon the American Heartlands, which at source constitutes much of the overall theme within the album.
If 'Shangri-La' was predictably unambitious and 'On My One' the result of a contrived attempt to be more artistically ambitious to create a fidgety collection of songs, then 'Hearts That Strain' is a more than adequate response to these criticisms. After casting aside his additional songwriters after 'Shangri-La', this album pays testament to Jake Bugg's development as an autonomous musician and as one unafraid to retract on his own misfires. It may be a step away from the gritty- realism to which constituted his original appeal, however Jake Bugg has effectively assembled a more thematic album which in itself deserves to be regarded as his most personal, expressive and ambitious release so far. This makes his next authentic direction an even more exciting prospect.