After the massive success of his self-titled debut which saw him being compared with Bob Dylan, Donovan and others, whilst also being seen as a savior for music, Shangri La takes the folk sound of his debut but expands it to include other influences. The Dylanesque folk is still there across the album, but Bugg also delves into punk rock, Brit-pop, indie, rockabilly and even folk-jazz. The production on this album is also much greater; something that I guess comes with the territory of working with Rick Rubin, with a much bigger sound overall including a full backing band on most of the tracks. With his move towards a more electric sound, Bugg also had the opportunity to showcase more of his ability on the guitar, proving that he is just as good on the electric as he is on the acoustic. Although his delicate acoustic playing drew plenty of comment on his debut, the guitar remains almost a hidden bow within his repertoire and his playing often appears in the shadow of his vocal performances and song-writing which draws most of the attention. Speaking of his vocals, they continue to stand out on this latest offering, if not sounding more mature and complete. Although that folk twang is still there in patches, Bugg also shows off his skills as a ballad singer showing there is a softer side to him as well.
This brings me then to the songs themselves of which many stand out. The album begins with the interestingly named “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It”, a song which is similar in style to the more folk-oriented tracks on his debut and has a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” feel to it. This is followed by “Slumville Sunrise”, an electric rockabilly number that contains immense riffage and a pounding rhythm section. Already you can tell after these first two tracks how this album will be quite different from his first album in terms of its greater electric sound. As we head into the middle part of the album, Bugg begins to change gear and spice things up a bit starting with the sweet indie-folk of “Me and You”. On this track, Bugg combines some soothing acoustic playing with a delicate vocal that shows off his softer side while proving his music isn’t all just built around a hard-edged country twang. This is followed by the anthemic “Messed Up Kids” which is sure to be a live favorite, and the beautiful ballad “A Song About Love” which in my mind could go down as Bugg’s best song to date. This beautiful ballad has a Nick Drake feel to it especially in the verses and sees Bugg show off his vocal range in the chorus proving he can belt out a ballad just as good as a folk rocker. The final part of the album continues the theme across the album where quality overrides filler on most occasions. “Kitchen Table” is a folk-jazz number similar in nature to John Martyn’s Solid Air and combines some great acoustic folk licks with jazzy electric piano flourishes and a great drum track. Then there is the gorgeous “Pine Tree”, an alt-country ballad featuring Bugg on his own singing and playing acoustic guitar in what is one of the more heartfelt tender moments on the album. Finally, the album ends with the Neil Young sounding electric folk rocker “Simple Pleasures” and “Storm Passes Away” which sees Bugg end as he started with folk, this time in a similar mold to Woody Guthrie with this very rootsy country number.
Shangri La is a massive step forward for Bugg musically and showcases quite a lot of growth and progression from his first album. It is not a straight out country-folk album and contains a lot more musical diversity on it than his debut. The greater role of electric instruments also adds another dimension to proceedings and gives Bugg’s sound that extra maturity, allowing him to play around more with musical ideas and different musical styles. He showcases a greater depth to his vocals, while the added bonus of having a greater electric sound allows him the chance to showcase his guitar playing more than he did on his debut. My only real criticism would be around some of the production which at times I feel Ruben overdoes. This is particularly the case in the adding of a rhythm section and a big drum sound to songs which would have sounded better stripped back with just Bugg playing guitar. However, this is just a fussy observation more than anything and the production doesn’t take away from the quality of the song-writing. In conclusion, then, I feel Shangri La is a more rounded album and improves on his debut, showing Bugg’s maturity as an artist and offering more versatility musically. All in all a very good album with some really well constructed and nice sounding songs by this great talent, showing that Bugg won’t be a one album flash in the pan.