Album Review: Jake Bugg – Hearts That Strain

By on Monday, 28th August 2017 at 12:00 pm

Jake Bugg Hearts that Strain coverAs precocious folk rock singer Jake Bugg prepares to release his fourth studio album ‘Hearts That Strain’, it bears repeating that he is still only 23 years old. The quality and emotional depth of his songwriting have always been well beyond his years, but his musical flexibility and willingness to expand his sound are surely virtues of his youth. Departing from Bugg’s stark, often combative, earlier style, ‘Hearts that Strain’ is remarkably light and easy to listen to, with just enough punch to keep it from being bland.

Recorded in Nashville with veteran producers David Ferguson and Matt Sweeney, the album has an appealing overall warmth and a delightful emphasis on Bugg’s vocals, which are brilliant throughout. Bugg sets the tone beautifully on opening track and recent single ‘How Soon the Dawn’, with a delicate grace in his delivery that shouldn’t come as a surprise, after earlier songs like ‘Love, Hope and Misery’ from 2016 LP ‘On My One’ and ‘A Song About Love’ from 2013’s ‘Shangri-La’. Even Bugg’s self-titled debut album showed hints of this fundamental vocal ability, and his singing voice has definitively come into its own here.


The pervasive Nashville influence is felt keenly on standout track ‘Southern Rain’. The slide guitar and shuffling rhythm establish the song’s distinct Americana feel, while a tinkling piano melody adds a hint of sunlight behind the deftly poetic chorus lyrics “southern rain is here to stay / and you know I’m thinking of a clouded judgment day”. Not to be left out of the mix, Bugg’s exquisite narrative songwriting ability shines in several places on ‘Hearts That Strain’. The album’s first hint of darkness is heard in the edgy guitar lines and ominous lyrics of ‘In the Event of My Demise’, where Bugg sings “ if you should hear my name / be a friend and please refrain / from saying we were friends / let them tell their lies / in the event of my demise”. That portentous plea precedes a clever harmonic sequence in the chorus, which highlights a sharp irony in the lines “oh no, look at them go / didn’t they love me so?”

Any remaining concern that Bugg has lost his folk-punk edge can be laid to rest with mid-album tracks ‘Hearts That Strain’ and ‘Burn Alone’. The album’s shadowy title track features gritty guitars and the pungent fire-and-brimstone imagery often found in southern Americana. Equally gritty but decidedly more blues-oriented, ‘Burn Alone’ is the fortuitious product of a collaboration with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys (who also contributed to the aforementioned ‘How Soon the Dawn’ and ‘In the Event of My Demise’).

Another collaborative track, ‘Waiting’, features guest vocals by Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley Cyrus and youngest daughter of ’90s country star Billy Ray Cyrus. While Noah’s credentials certainly aren’t lacking (her own debut album is said to be coming out later this year), her voice doesn’t mix particularly well with Bugg’s. His subtle delivery should have been perfect for this jazz-inflected duet, but it’s largely overwhelmed by the stridency in Cyrus’ tone, and he oversings in places as he tries to keep up with her sheer volume.

Following that minor glitch, ‘The Man on Stage’ is a classic and heart-rending ode to the ephemeral lifestyle of a folk troubadour, finely crafted to display both Bugg’s poetic talents and the sensitivity of his vocal delivery. The musical arrangement of piano and strings is wisely restrained, but still another very clear indication that Bugg has moved on from the do-it-yourself aesthetic of ‘On My One’. The album finishes with a broad flourish of fully expansive arrangements. Softly psychedelic in tone, ‘Indigo Blue’ harks back to 60s folk rock in its airy chorus, “from the top of this mountain / beyond the horizon / indigo blue / colouring the rest of our lives”. The gently rocking ‘Bigger Lover’ declares, quite aptly, “you got my heart on my sleeve”, ahead of the final strains of piano and slide guitar in ‘Every Colour in the World’.

One gets the feeling with ‘Hearts That Strain’ that Bugg’s own heart might have been straining a little bit, finally cracking the tough, recalcitrant exterior of his previous self-made image. The stubborn defiance of his earlier records is not entirely absent here, but it is certainly restrained, making space for his intensely spirited songwriting and vastly underrated vocal talents to take center stage.


Jake Bugg’s fourth studio album ‘Hearts That Strain’ is due for release this Friday, the 1st of September, on Virgin EMI. Bugg will embark on a tour of the UK in November; you can find the details here. TGTF’s complete past coverage of Jake Bugg, including a review of his recent Cambridge Folk Festival appearance, is back this way.

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