“The album is dying in front of our very eyes,” Variety columnist and music business know-it-all Bob Lefsetz wrote recently based on weak LP sales, including Katy Perry’s Prism, which sold only about 220,000 copies in its first week.
“If your plan is to increase your audience, spread the word and make money, suddenly the album just isn’t working anymore,” he continued. “We’ve turned into a nation of grazers. And the artist’s job is to constantly be at the smorgasbord. Not to deliver one big meal that is picked at and thrown away, but to constantly provide tantalizing bites to the public.”
As if Bob Lefsetz knows anything about “the artist’s job.”
Today I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long, long time. I’m going to put on pants before noon. I’m going to drive to the record store. And I’m going to slap my credit card on the counter as the clerk bags up my copy of Shangri La by Jake Bugg. When’s the last time a 57-year-old bought an album by a 19-year-old that wasn’t a gift for a 12-year-old?
But Bugg’s sophomore album, produced by Rick Rubin with his arms folded and his eyes closed, is the kind of thing you want to hold, that you want to open with your fingernails, that you want to stick inside and wait a few seconds before it takes you away. This is not a Katy Perry album of filler vying to be picked as the next single, but a collection of great songs delivered with undeniable talent. It’s the kind of album you first bought on vinyl, then replaced when the CD format took over in the late ’80s and then bought on high quality 180 gram vinyl reissue last month for double what the CD cost.
The album is far from dead, it’s just that they’re not making very many great ones anymore. But just as Bugg has been cast as a retro performer, with comparisons to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Beatles greeting his self-titled 2012 debut and its everywhere hit “Lightning Bolt,” the new Shangri La, named after the Malibu studio in which it was primarily recorded, is a return to the classic album period where the process started with the songwriter playing the songs on an acoustic guitar for all the others.
Bugg is a good-looking brooder, a serious guitarist and singer of powerful voice and Oasis-ian phrasing. But his greatest gift is as a merchant of uplifting melodies that seem to come out of nowhere on songs like “Me and You” and “Messed Up Kids.” These are good songs that become great ones halfway through, with Bugg’s amazing bridge work. His folk songs, most written in collaboration with older gentlemen such as Iain Archer, Matt Sweeney, and Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs, shift into a whole other gear. The kid’s got the majesty jones.
The new album kicks off with a trio of uptempo numbers that continue the first album’s atomic skiffle, but the richest material comes later, in the “you still here?” slots of a Katy Perry record. “A Song About Love” has all the drama of a real life break-up, but the pieces are put together in Bugg’s sturdily luxuriant voice. “Is that what you wanted, a song about love?” he sings so clearly, underlining sentimentality as a ruse we hold onto anyway. Like love itself.
Musicians will stop making albums when filmmakers stop making movies. It’s what they grew up wanting to make, the form to strive for excellence in. More perfect creative enclosures have not been conceived. Albums, movies, are the standards, not the number of YouTube views or Spotify listens.
Like great albums before, Shangri La aims to create and maintain a mood through the sequence of its material. Concept? Yeah, there’s one: fill the determined time and space with inspiration. There aren’t many guitar solos, though “All Your Reasons” dissolves with Neil/Crazy Horse psychedelia and our boy Jake gets 15 seconds to shred on “Kingpin,” a blur of clubland riffage and exploding hair that gives the LP a kick in the ass near the midpoint. Bugg goes lightest on “Pine Trees,” but that solo acoustic number feels big as Laurel Canyon with crow flying imagery and vocal conviction. If there’s a weak link it’s “Kitchen Table,” which sounds a tad like Crosby Stills & Nash discovering electric piano, but there are more songs like LP-closing “Storm Passes Away,” a bit of country gospel, that ring so true as to be beyond judgement.
See also: Lou Reed’s Last Great Album
The album’s sprawling moment of spiritual envelopment is “Simple Pleasures,” which looks back at the scuffling 2012 Bugg as if from the window of a train bound for glory. The Oasis influence shines through like hangover sunlight, but Bugg emerges naked and unselfconscious. It’s as stunning as any five minutes of music you’ll hear all year. But it works best in the context of all the other songs it’s bound to under the Shangri La cover.
I’ve been listening to Shangri La on my computer all weekend from an NPR “First Listen” segment, but I’m going to buy the CD today for a couple reasons. 1) This is my kind of Kickstarter: you make a great album and I’ll buy it. Thank you, here’s $15. And 2) CDs sound better than MP3s.
Not being an audiophile in the least, I can’t back up number two with any data. Computer, stereo, car–it all sounded the same. Until the night I spent on a couch in a storage shed a few months ago. I had spent the day going through all my stuff and I was too tired to take the hour trip home, so I thought I’d catch a couple hours of shut-eye and then head home in the morning light. I put on a CD, moving boxes to get there, then went back and laid down. “Every Picture Tells a Story” by Rod Stewart played from beginning to end without interruption, without clicking to a song from a different album I was reminded of. I listened to it with a depth of sound you don’t get from your computer speakers and noted how even the weaker tracks had their places in setting up the LP cornerstones. It was one of my favorite listening experiences in years, and since then I’ve gone back to some of my favorite albums and played them from beginning to end, as they were designed to be heard.
The album format is magical. And Shangri La is what happens when you have what it takes to make a great one. I’ve been playing this Jake Bugg record over and over, and this week when it hits stores, I get to own it.