Jake Bugg’s self-titled debut album is an undeniable opus. Even at its most rousing, there’s a vulnerable timidness to the record that not only welcomes us into his world, but his soul. His earnest and sometimes gut-wrenching songs were stark, but polished, relying heavily on musical talent and memorable melodies to garner mass appeal. Long story short, it was impossible not to bite. Fast forward through the album hitting the summit of the UK album charts and a ripple that is easing him in on the other side of the pond, and the time has come for Mr. Bugg’s sophomoric effort. It doesn’t feel like he’s exactly been milking the Jake Bugg project for as long as he has (just about 7 singles have been lifted to date,) but it does feel time to venture into a new era. It feels a bit sudden, but it’s exciting. The question is really whether or not he can strike harder than he did with “Lightning Bolt” the first go-around.
It’s obvious this time that Jake isn’t intent on standing quietly behind his guitar, but rather he’s demanding our full attention. With the release of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” it is more than clear that he wants to make it known that he isn’t some 19 year old one-trick-pony, but a well-rounded artist. This is definitely a smart move for him to be making, considering the fast route to career-suicide is repetition. Additionally, and most terrifyingly, the second fastest route is abandoning your trademarks too fast. For most musicians, following up such a well-recieved debut is a daunting task. In reality, most first albums from singer-songwriters are filled with tracks that have been crafted and perfected over a long period of time. What feels like our introduction is actually the culmination of years of hard work, performing, writing, and sorting. While a second album is a chance to start fresh, there’s a serious pressure to live up to their now-trademark sound and ideas without repeating or rehashing, but in a much shorter period of time. So the odds are stacked against Jake Bugg here, but within the first few seconds of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” it is obvious that he’s confident.
It isn’t that he hasn’t ever touched an electric guitar before; there’s plenty of it on the self-titled, but it was certainly very acoustic-based. This track rips through the gate immediately with a plugged-in riff. So what is “What Doesn’t Kill You,” exactly? It’s a Rick Rubin-ized, beautifully melodic punk song. It’s a bit more refined than something the Sex Pistols would have tackled, but it is a clear descendent of their work. Conversely, there’s the slightest nod to Britpop’s heyday, having a little Oasis or Suede flair for decoration. It’s more in the way “What Doesn’t Kill You” strives to be an anthem, and, believe me, it does succeed on many levels. What it lacks, and this could just be our level familiarity, is that “in awe of existence” quality. Maybe his brilliance has just settled in by now. The lyrics aren’t as eloquent or bold as “Seen It All” or “Trouble Town” from his debut, but it’s made abundantly clear that although Jake has made an effort to shake his past, he’s not quite able to yet. I’m not sure we’re really ready for him to venture into new territory quite yet, though. So he does win that hand.
Discounting the fact that he had an uphill battle to live up to (or even surpass) his perfect debut, “What Doesn’t Kill You” is actually a success. Jake knows what he’s doing here. Simplicity has always served him well, and, honestly, what’s simpler than punk? It pays off, though, because it isn’t a rehash of the same sound we’re now used to. His folksy-melodic rock wasn’t exactly a never-before-heard sound, either; he just did it really well. The same applies here. The song will sit nicely alongside his older material, though, and that’s really the best he can do at this point in time. I’m not sure, at this stage in the game, he was ever going to side-swipe us something out of the ordinary, but assuming this is just the tip of the iceberg for his pending sophomore album, Shangri-La, I’d say there is some exciting music on the horizon. Especially with Rick Rubin’s guidance and production mastery, this record is already shaping up to be great. “What Doesn’t Kill You” is instantly memorable, easy to get into, and still manages to feel like Jake Bugg. By definition, you have to call that a win.