Mr Jukes, the new moniker adopted by Bombay Bicycle Club’s bespectacled frontman Jack Steadman, is emphatically not a solo project. Built largely on samples and bursting at the seams with high profile guest spots (BJ the Chicago Kid, Lianna La Havas and Lalah 'Daughter of Donny’ Hathaway all crop up), the ethos behind his new bedroom project is every bit as (if not more) collaborative as that of his old band.
By 'bedroom project' we in fact mean 'cabin project'. The bones of what would become 'God First' (a name chosen to convey something about the spiritual aspect of inspiration and not the most conceptually tight thing about the record to be honest) were recorded on Steadman’s journey by boat from Shanghai to Canada. The only passenger on a commercial vessel, he would tape his keyboards down to combat the rolling of the ocean and then divide his time between exploring new beats and recording love songs for the crew’s wives.
This nautical environment cuts through most clearly on opening track ‘Typhoon’. Musically it maps out the fluidity of his musicianship by harking back to everything great on the mid-era Ninja Tune roster: smooth Cinematic Orchestra strings are introduced to arresting Cut Copy beats, giving an impression that will remain throughout the album that Steadman is cannily remixing his own music without bothering to pause and release the original version. But it’s the unusual use of traditional seafaring lyrics about fateful tides, blowing winds and waiting girls that convey a real sense of seaswept yearning, Steadman’s words sounding ever more sea shanty-ish as more and more voices from the St Aloysius' College Choir take up his steady chant.
From this point on his voice largely remains lost in the mix, submerged under choir-style group choruses and some impressively heavyweight guest spots, and re-emerging occasionally to steer the helm on tracks like 'Ruby' and 'Magic'. Sadly these tracks can't avoid sounding like experimental offcuts from final BBC album 'So Long, See You Tomorrow', as his distractingly accented vocals tend to inadvertently dominate proceedings (I'm sure I'm not the only one who assumed Bombay Bicycle Club were an Indian band when they first heard 'The Boy I Used To Be', not just because of the name either).
It’s when Steadman truly inhabits his Mr Jukes persona and hides behind his collection of keyboards, drum machines and sample pads, letting someone else take centre-stage, that ‘God First’ really finds its feet. Elli Ingram and Lianne La Havas pour vocal caramel over both ‘Somebody New’ and ‘When Your Light Goes Out’ respectively, while De La Soul rock up on ‘Leap Of Faith’ to shore up their reputations as the kings of collaboration (and launch a fleet of well-merited Gorillaz comparisons across the internet in the process). The pairing of tracks and performers is flawless throughout, with BJ the Chicago Kid lending his effortless cool to the equally laissez-faire ‘Angels/Your Love’ and Lalah Hathaway adding some gospel heft to ‘From Golden Stars Comes Silver Dew’.
Steadman’s deep knowledge of musical history also makes 'God First' manna from heaven for geeky crate diggers. Album highlight 'Grant Green' perfectly demonstrates the numerous levels at which his brain seems to be capable of operating at any one time. The song features the indomitable Charles Bradley, who famously spent much of his career as a James Brown impersonator, and whose vocals kick in after a horn introduction that is heavily reminiscent of Brown's 'It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World', a song that was sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan for their single 'Gravel Pit', which also sampled 'Ain't It Funky Now' by, wait for it... Grant Green.
Both immediately hook-filled and intellectually deep at the same time, ‘God First’ has already earned its place as one of the most exciting and unexpected releases of 2017. In recasting himself as the enigmatic Mr Jukes, Steadman has tapped into a well of inspiration that almost completely bypasses his own history as a guitar-toting indie icon, feeding instead off a far wider history of dance, soul and funk. What could have been a vanity project instead sacrifices its creator's ego at the altar of musical collaboration, pushing the limits of what constitutes both a 'bedroom project' and an ‘ensemble piece’.
Words: Josh Gray
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