Jake Bugg's eponymous 2012 debut was enough of a success to push him into neo-stardom across the Atlantic Ocean. He never had an actual hit in America -- the album did get to 75 on the Billboard 200, though -- but his reputation was strong, strong enough to gain the attention of Rick Rubin, who signed up to record the young British singer/songwriter's sophomore album at the producer's home studio. Literal guy that he is, Bugg named his second album Shangri La after Rubin's Malibu studio, and it's an appropriate title because it's a collection of 12 songs that were recorded at Shangri La. There is no greater theme than that, apart from perhaps how Rubin assists Bugg in going electric, accelerating the process that took Bob Dylan the better part of three years into less than 12 months. Rubin skillfully retains a veneer of authenticity throughout Shangri La, adhering to the Dylan in Greenwich Village vibe of the 2012 debut and never letting the electric expansion feel like exploitation, but all this care is applied to songs that are deliberately slight -- "Kitchen Table" and "Pine Trees" signifying country authenticity, while the Wire-inspired "Kingpin" signifies urban grit, the two tied together through picture books and cable TV -- and delivered in a voice that's the Bard channeled through Alex Turner. Here, Rubin is a help: he brings in Pete Thomas, one of rock's great unheralded drummers, to anchor this throwback to 1965 Dylan, a sonic achievement undercut by Bugg's adenoidal whine. At every turn, this high-pitch sneer acts as a reminder of Bugg's terminal adolescence, offering another opportunity to examine his sophomoric solipsism. Cut out Bugg's delivery, and Shangri La is a perfectly appealing singer/songwriter throwback -- an exercise in '60s folk-rock pastiche that is just pleasing enough on the surface. As this is music that is determined to be authentic, it's impossible to cut out the guy responsible for the tone, melody, and words, so attention is always drawn to Bugg, a songwriter who can cobble together melody but not meaning, a singer whose severely limited skills cripple whatever chance he has in communicating.
Shangri La Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine