Jake Bugg frustrates me as a songwriter. His debut, Jake Bugg was a slow burn that quietly became one of my favorite records when it debuted a few years ago. Each subsequent record has been vastly different than the last, to mixed results. But one thing I am fully aware of is that at 23 years old, Jake Bugg is a force of nature that will be here for a long time.
Hearts That Strain, Bugg’s fourth full length, follows suit with his previous works in that it is completely different from anything else he has put out. While his debut, an acoustic tribute to Oasis and Shangri La, was a grunge punk album, Hearts That Strain is a classic country tinged album that seems to channel John Denver in all the best ways.
What sets Bugg apart as a songwriter is how vastly different his work is, especially for someone whose debut album was released four years ago. While I initially fell in love with his ‘don’t give a shit’ acoustic songs that oozed with personality, on Hearts That Strain, Bugg blends a dreamlike homage to outlaw country with influence from the Gallagher brothers.
Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s most cohesive album to date. It doesn’t sound nearly as slap-dash as some of his earlier work, and is far more fleshed out than earlier records. However, the lyricism is more vague and doesn’t seem to have the same storytelling aspects of his classic, “Broken”.
Though his songwriting has always had a hint of bluesy southern rock to it, it is absolutely astonishing that Bugg is able to take a genre like classic country and make it his own to the point that it sounds in-line with his older works. The steel guitar, piano and the angelic backing vocals sound like more of a tribute to George Jones and Conway Twitty than most modern country acts can muster. I would say that is an impressive feat for a kid from England.
“In The Event of My Demise” seems to channel the rhythm of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” amidst a Johnny Cash-esque guitar line. “Waiting” is a perfect duet with Noah Cyrus, amidst romantic guitar strums, playful piano and violin, and a killer saxophone solo.
While the lyrics don’t give the straight pictures I would have hoped for, they are dreamlike enough that it allows you to paint your own image and setting given the music. A good example is “The Man on Stage”, which finds Bugg singing about a broken lover with the lines, “He took your heart with his heart / And then he led the man on stage / Is not the same man you’ve met / To the next town up ahead”. The piano and scorned violin convey a devastating heartbreak, even though Bugg hasn’t really said anything himself. It’s as infuriating as it is brilliantly catchy.
The only downside to the album is given how much energy Bugg has, it is a shame that every song has the same mellow energy. He doesn’t push himself in ways I had hoped at the start of each song. Instead, he found a groove and a sound for this album and stuck to it. But the depth of musicianship and number of instruments help make up for it.
Jake Bugg is an incredibly talented songwriter. The fact that he’s so young and has mastered so many different genres but still manages a cohesive discography is the feat of a genius. While I can’t claim that Hearts That Strain is Bugg’s best work, it is inspired. It harkens to the classic sound of country music in a way that modern country artists can’t touch. Considering that Hearts That Strain came just over a year after his last record, it makes this album all the more impressive.
by Kyle Schultz