On Oh My Messy Mind, James Bay Returns To His Roots, But Continues To Grow

 

In December, before playing his new single, “Bad,” for the first time at St. Stephen’s Church, James Bay admitted to those lucky enough to attend the intimate charity gig, “But I guess, ’cause you don’t know this song, you won’t know if I’m getting the words wrong, which works in my favor. I’ll do my best.”

What followed was a soft and tender ballad, at the time untitled. The song displayed Bay yearning for lost love, the pain of the breakup still fresh. As the first chorus rang through the church, Bay’s voice cracked, his nerves palpable. But the silent crowd fed off this anxious energy, creating an imperfect but intimate first performance.  

Bay continued to play “Bad,” finally with a name, during the US leg of his Electric Light tour in Spring 2019, and by the time he finally released a studio version, on his “Oh My Messy Mind” EP, it felt like a completely different song. Not for the melody or lyrics, or even the technical skills, but the power. In the shift, Bay transformed soft and vulnerable heartache into an anthem of suppressed forlorn energy. He’s more confident, more careful in his crafting of the words. This time, the vulnerability feels like a deliberate choice to invite the viewer in and reveal more about his emotional state. More than that, about a minute and a half into the song, as the first chorus ends, and the beat picks up. This, too, is a departure from the acoustic version fans have become accustomed to on live versions passed through Twitter these past few months. Yet on the studio version, with each subsequent verse, a new melodic layer is added, only to be stripped away and replaced again at the end of the song. This version, with its varying textures, takes the listener on a journey and is exciting and energetic, though in the gentlest way possible and in its efforts, takes “Bad” to the next level of artistic skill.

It’s this gentle embrace of beats and slow desire connects the lead single “Bad” with the rest of Bay’s new EP, Oh My Messy Mind. It fits expertly with the EP’s opener, “Peer Pressure (feat. Julia Michaels),” first released as a single in February. The song was initially seen as a return to the angsty, longing ballads Bay was known for on his debut, Chaos and the Calm, and was criticized for departing from on his follow up, Electric Light. On the track, Bay and Michaels meld their songwriting prowess and singing abilities perfectly to craft an incredible tune, ebbing and flowing like the tide.

Now that Bay has released more beyond “Peer Pressure,” it’s clear his new era is a subtle fusion of his two previous albums. “Rescue” showcases many of the new technical aspects Bay displayed on Electric Light—playing with immense rhythm and multi-layering, a backing gospel, experimental sounds— yet it feels as though it would fit better with his Chaos and the Calm tracks than anything he released last year. It has heavy beats, it builds, and it’s by far the most up-tempo on the EP, but it’s not nearly as frantic or energetic as “Pink Lemonade,” “Wasted on Each Other,” or “Just for Tonight.”

On the other end of the spectrum, “Break My Heart Right” is a soft and loving piano ballad that fits perfectly with the slower songs on Electric Light ”Slide” and “Us.” As his power builds, Bay’s voice breaks, just like it did on his original acoustic versions of “Bad.” This effect though, feels deliberate, not drawn from the anxious energy of debuting a new song live for the first time, but it feels gentler and allows the listener to come in closer and feel more of Bay. The surreal softness of the song makes it sound like it should be the one listed on movie soundtrack, rather than the earlier “Us.”

Oh My Messy Mind brings back several elements of Bay’s first album, Chaos and the Calm, so fans who were disappointed by the stylistically experimental Electric Light will feel welcome back to the broody croons of the singer-songwriter they first loved. At the same time, it showcases Bay’s growth, and has tangible roots for those who enjoyed Electric Light to still feel connected to his music. Bay returns to the acoustic sound he fostered on songs like “Let It Go,” “Move Together,” and “Incomplete,” but still incorporates facets of his newer catalogue for a wonderfully cohesive extended play. Here’s hoping there’s more new music yet to come this year.