James Bay’s ‘Electric Light’ Is a Gospel-Tinged Pop Extravaganza

English singer-songwriter James Bay writes heartfelt pop songs. His 2015 debut studio effort, “Chaos and the Calm” reached number one in the UK and won him a “Critics Choice” Brit Award. Having performed on a Burberry runway, and released a range for Topman, Bay has a persona in which fashion is a key component. On his new album, “Electric Light,” Bay has shed his locks and fedoras, and eventuated the stylistic overhaul with new, a bold musical direction. While he continues largely in the vein of his previous work, he ventures beyond traditional singer-songwriter territory, freely indulging R&B and soul sensibilities. It’s a set of simple songs with universally relatable lyrics about love, with detailed production and an ambition that reaches for the epic grandeur of idols like Bowie and Prince.  

“Wasted On Each Other” sets the tone with arena rock, blaring guitars and ample studio embellishment that makes for a strikingly panoramic soundscape. It’s pop on steroids. Bay’s vocal lines are meticulously layered, with one voice quivering, another in mild-mannered smooth glissade, and a third forceful voicing thrown in for good measure. Next up, “Pink Lemonade” takes on a definitive ‘80s flavor. The chorus assumes a hazy synth mist, and finds Bay erupting into screeching-cat gospel histrionics. There are tantalizing, brittle guitar lines, and some vaguely Brian May-esque jutting heroics. The song owes much of its impact to its density and admirable attention to production detail, although this is hardly a substitute for the relative lack of melodic originality.

“WIld Love” and “Us” delve deeper into gospel, albeit only in terms of musical comportment, not subject matter. The former is fairly stripped-down, and in an album that is rather cluttered, the sparse, open moments stand out. Portions with just Bay’s voice and piano capture a heightened emotion, and contribute some of the album’s most poignant bigs. Both songs conjure stadiums packed with fans concerted in the impassioned, back and forth swaying of arms. The tracks eventually become triumphant, uplifting music, meant make you roar like a tiger, spread eagle wings, finally tackle some daunting spreadsheets, etc. Next, “In My Head” adds variety, with Bay trying his hand at some percussive singing styles. There’s an Auto Tune indulgence with cascading, melodies, and the spontaneity of it is a delightful momentary diversion, owing much of its effect to its brevity; it makes one wish more artists demonstrated such restraint. By the song’s end, it’s a boisterous, hand clapping, frolicsome scene, with gleeful dancing in the streets, recalling the sonic spirit of the “Magic School Bus” theme.

“Just For Tonight” is an anomaly, in which Bay takes on ‘90s alternative fare, with acoustic guitar and angsty singing. Eventually, however, handclaps add a festive feel, and ground the song back in the album’s thematic soundscape. “Wanderlust” continues the festivity, having a decidedly breezy feel, with subdued, jazzy chords, and cool, comfortable crooning. There’s a Fleetwood Mac vibe, but by the end, Bay has been apparently, teleported to a southern church, swaying, clapping, and gesticulating with the spirited choir. “I Found You” is a definite standout, with Bay channeling D’angelo. The minimal beat of crisp, barebones snares and claps creates a hard, elemental groove. There are funkily clipped chords, horns, and a pervading, luscious harmonic blanket. Bay’s performance is exceptionally thorough, and “soulful.” The song ends with a surreal, reverb-soaked choir and string ascension that comes to a sudden halt, in a way that is somehow novelly satisfying rather than unsettling.

“Sugar Drunk High” is a supremely funky cut, with stop-and-go riffage, gritty guitars, and bursts of noise. For the chorus, Bay indulges his ‘80s pop theatricality, and goes full star-reaching, bleating frontman. “Stand Up” fins him again gliding smoothly, and has a midsection with woozy, treated vocals that is mildly disorienting in a stimulating way. Of course, there are gospel choirs again, a phenomenon that many would agree has now grown tiresome. Still, the songs are otherwise stylistically diverse enough to make this a minor quibble. On “Fade Out,” Bay really centers into his falsetto, in tandem with high-pitched synth swells, making the song sound like a duet with a machine. Finally, “Slide,” a piano driven, intimate number, effectively brings the album to closure at an emotional height.    

From the introductory track’s dialogue between a couple outside a nightclub, the lyrical theme of the record is set: “I don’t… I don’t know how I… I feel about… this… us.” The album explores the allconsuming bewilderment, and torrent of conflicting emotions, that is love. Many lyrics describe the rush of being overwhelmed by amorous attachment, and the impulsive drive to throw caution to the wind and revel in indulgent abandon. In “Wasted On Each Other,” Bay sings, “We let this runaway train catch fire / I don’t care, all I want is you.” He continues, in “Wild Love” “Let’s be reckless, unaffected / Running out until we’re breathless,” and in “Just For Tonight,” “Forget who we are, give up and ignite / Go with me through the dark / For tonight.”

Constant mental infatuation is another recurring subject. “Us” features the lines,”Over the riots, above all the noise / Through all the worry, I still hear your voice,” and “In My Head” pronounces the commitment, ”I’m gonna get you in my head /  ‘Til I can’t forget.” While many lyrics strike as sophomoric, saccharine fodder, there are more poetic moments that capture the wide-eyed wonder and primal excitement of youth, before jaded cynicism envelops our spirit, and practicality threatens to compromise our dreams. “Sugar Drunk High” has the touching lines, “We were just kids living young and naïve / Running round streets like the King and the Queen / Gas light flicker in your eye, what are hopeless dreams?” All fourteen tracks inhabit this space, with the finale, “Slide” concluding, “The weight of the world is love.”

Overall, the album can be a bit hackneyed and cloying with its lovelorn madness, but this is also what accounts for the broad relatability of its lyricism. The gospel fixation can seem rather excessive and forced, but the songs hop genres with an impressive, confident professionalism. The production is impeccable, and the remarkable sincerity and ambition of the record make it a vibrant statement and a successful, promising next step.

Electric Light” is available May 18 on Apple Music.