Chaos and the Calm is a measured debut album that aims to present soulful blues-rock in an subjective, widely appealing package.
In the vein of fellow Brit balladeers Tom Odell and George Ezra comes James Bay, a husky-voiced blues-rocker whose curated image invokes the impassioned troubadour. Following four EPs and the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award, Chaos and the Calm is a measured debut album that aims to present soulful blues-rock in an subjective, widely appealing package. While Bay’s talent as a performer is undeniable, this debut is forgettably formulaic and holds back the chaos in favor of the innocuously radio-safe.
Across Chaos and the Calm, Bay shows two settings: moody ballads and big guitar anthems. The latter opens the album to infuse some excitement into the proceedings. “Craving” features a rolling electric guitar riff and a driving beat, a departure from previous material now that Bay has access to a backing band. Lead single “Hold Back the River” flirts with this propulsive rock band sound, but shines in the more restrained moments. Bay’s measured (for once) vocals and an unintrusive, plaintive guitar line complement the lyrical entreaties extremely well. But the electric guitar makes a comeback on “Best Fake Smile” – accompanied here by hand-clapping percussion – and the upbeat “Collide.” The Black Keys-indebted “Get Out While You Still Can” is, by far, the best blend of Bay’s trademark blues tones and rocking electric guitar.
The perhaps poorly named (considering the unintended connection to frozen princesses) “Let It Go” is the first track to see Bay do something with his guitar beyond rocking out. A simple but expressive riff accompanies Bay’s lilting vocal, all backed by a decidedly R&B slow beat. With the blues element in his repertoire, this sort of vaguely R&B sound does feature off and on throughout Chaos and the Calm. “If You Ever Want To Be In Love” manages to be a sonic mixture of R&B and country, replete with lap steel. The most country-inspired song, however, is without a doubt “When We Were On Fire.” The latter half of the album, though, racks up four relatively quiet numbers, including “Move Together” and “Scars.” “Need The Sun To Break” and “Incomplete” close out the album with a bevy of backing choirs and a switch from rock guitar to acoustics and piano lines.
Lyrically and thematically, these 12 tracks go down easy. Covering everything from escaping small town life, shedding false friends and about five iterations of lost love, Bay sells himself short by partnering his soulful voice with such tired subject matter packed in uninspired words. Childish metaphors like “When We Were On Fire”’s “Our love is dying / Out cold on the floor / Like a fallen star that shines no more” fill these tracks. Songs are wracked with the same heightened emotion, the same passionate despair and longing to the point that they threaten to coagulate into one amorphous mass that numbs the listeners’ senses. It’s not unlike a string of Coldplay choruses.
The album’s familiar themes of love and self-discovery play on a loop through ballads and festival-ready stompers. Through faux-confessional lyrics, Bay wrestles with patently relatable situations. The constants are Bay’s soulful voice, ranging from raspy to the occasional falsetto, and his distinctive guitar. The majority of these twelve tracks stick to blues-rock and country-indebted compositions, but Bay does dip into more far-flung genres. The range is there, but it lacks a corresponding depth.