Jake Bugg is a 19-year-old from a Nottingham housing project whose self-titled debut topped the U.K. pop charts late last year, somewhat astonishingly, with songs that seem steeped in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The “Chirping” Crickets and A Date With the Everly Brothers. Alongside Mumford & Sons, Frank Turner and other back-to-basics Brits, Bugg is making artisanal folk rock with Whole Foods-scale ambition. On a table sagging with big-box pop, it’s a small revelation.
Essentially, Bugg does what countrywomen Adele and Amy Winehouse did with soul: He yokes the spirit and styles of dated genres to the now. “One Friday night I took a pill or maybe two,” he keens over shuffle- beat acoustic-guitar strums on “Seen It All,” a hookstudded party-gone-wrong number. No Auto-Tuned gloss here; Bugg’s voice sounds more like it was run through a rusty 1950s stage mic than a digital workstation. At the same time, the roof-raising chorus pegs him squarely as a child of Nineties Brit pop.
Vivid storytelling helps keep Bugg out of the nostalgia swamp. “Everyone here has a knife,” the pilled-up narrator of “Seen It All” is told just before someone gets stabbed. “Boy, you missed your payment,” Bugg wails in “Trouble Town,” conjuring images of rain-soaked beat-downs amid a rockabilly groove. A “chalked white line stained with blood” recalls a drunken attack in “Ballad of Mr. Jones,” a f luorescent-lit murder tale. Bugg is less thug than street-raised observer; think Kendrick Lamar as a folk-revival busker.
More than anything, there’s a palpable teenage restlessness coursing through the set, notably on “Lightning Bolt” and “Taste It,” with their explosive guitar breaks and celebration of leaving the stale for points unknown – the sound of rock & roll being newly discovered. At other times, the heroics are battles with boredom. There’s enough pensive puffing to fill a Mad Men episode, Lucky Strikes and otherwise. The singer and his mates “smoke until our eyes bleed” on “Trouble Town,” and “skin up a fat one” on “Two Fingers.” Meanwhile, Bugg’s “high on a hashpipe of good intent” on the tender “Simple As This,” a song about searching for enlightenment in the wrong places that suggests a scrappy English Midlands version of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.”
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Despite a taste for lyrical violence and Oasis-style flamewarring (Bugg has dismissed the Mumfords as “posh farmers with banjos”), songs like “Simple As This” suggest the singer is more lover than fighter. See “Note to Self,” the LP’s most beautiful moment, a ballad of encouragement for a troubled girl, with a hashtag-y refrain. There’s even a nod to Elvis when Bugg flips the phrase “don’t be cruel” in the chorus, so sly you barely notice it.
There are times when Bugg doesn’t quite make it up from the record-shop basement: the cliché-fondling “Country Song,” or “Fire,” a sort of faux-78-rpm reggae gesture that resembles a Devendra Banhart outtake. But for a teenager’s debut, Jake Bugg shows an artist who is crazy fully formed, stepping into a journey that should be worth following.