james arthur

James Arthur

10 years into his career, James Arthur returns to his musical roots and considers his personal and professional legacy on new album 'Bitter Sweet Love'

Photography
Massimiliano Giorgeschi
Styling
Anastasia Busch
Assisted by
Tele Awo
Grooming
Elaine Lynskey

On his fifth studio album, more than a decade into his career, singer-songwriter James Arthur is making the kind of music that has always seemed like a foregone conclusion he would make. He has dabbled in a plethora of genres such as pop, electronic, R&B, and soul, but the gruffness of his tone, the crackle in his deliveries, and the kind of range that is overlooked in a pop format lead him to the more rock-leaning sound he has loved since his early years. His new album Bitter Sweet Love is out now.

“Being a longtime fan of rock music and that kind of being my first love having grown up in bands and being a front man, I’ve been gradually trying to incorporate that kind of style into my music for many years,” he said. “It just feels like, with this album, I’ve managed to capture that THING more than ever by working with Steve Solomon, who is the perfect collaborator for this type of project.” Solomon, active for over three decades in both pop and alternative rock, has credits with Pierce The Veil, The Score, and Dermot Kennedy, as well as Arthur himself. When asked who, of the current crop of rock acts in music, he would, hypothetically, like to step in for an evening, Arthur candidly pondered for a few moments, then professed his admiration of The 1975’s Matty Healy.

james arthur

His last album, 2021’s It’ll All Make Sense in The End, featured some teasers, with tracks like “Déjà vu,” SOS,” and “Lose My Mind” hitting on the rock sound from a more electronic perspective. “It was kind of a lockdown project,” said Arthur. “It wasn’t made in the same way that previous albums were made in terms of getting live drums and the more live elements I would use.”

Free from the artistic restrictions post-2020, Arthur was ready to take on a passion project. “The last one was more electronic and pop-track leaning, and that was something I fancied tackling as an assignment,” he said. “This album was the one where I had to remind people of who I am as a singer, and who I am as a singer-songwriter.” The result is a project that, with the right setlist, would fit him on a festival bill with The Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, and Jack White.

james arthur
Jacket: Ben Sherman | Shirt: Pangaia | Trousers: Séfr | Rings: Giovanni Raspini | Bracelets: Giovanni Raspini

Bitter Sweet Love

In the long leadup to the release of this record, Arthur kept the heaviest of the rock material at bay until the right moment, opting for lighter singles such as “A Year Ago” and “Homecoming.” “Sleepwalking,” released in mid-December, hints at it ever so slightly while “Blindside,” released as a single well before fans even knew there was an album coming, was a massive indicator of what was to come. The more electronic elements of the intro and verses give off the impression of an It’ll All Make Sense… deep cut, before shifting into the full-band arena-rock aesthetic.

In context, from the opening moments of the title track, it’s clear what this project is. Almost a male take on Paramore’s “Hard Times” sonically, Arthur’s rich and blistering vocals stand out immediately: “I won’t lie, but your body’s got me feelin’ under pressure / Under pressure, babe / Tell me lies, tell me lies / it don’t matter when I’m drowning in your pressure / It feels electric, babe.”

james arthur
Sweater: Daily Paper | Rings: Giovanni Raspini | Bracelets: Giovanni Raspini

Songs like the title track, “Ruthless,” and “New Generation” reveal a side of Arthur that has not been explored musically and politically. On the latter track, Arthur references the conundrum that is modern-day politics, with its, at times, fever-pitch levels of division and incessant tabloid scandals, sporting the kind of Elvis, 60’s rock feel that Stephen Sanchez nearly ripped out of his coffin on Angel Face track “Shake.” The only difference is, Arthur’s not going for a tribute. He’s here to plant his feet and deliver that natural rock n’ roll gurgled yell: “Politicians telling lies/ Politicians sniffin’ lines / Pick a side, you left or right? What a way to start a riot! I guess we never see the warning signs.” In what will surely be an eye-roll moment for boomers, he defiantly and repeatedly declares, “The kids on the internet are ruling the world!,” to close the track.

From the Ed Sullivan age throwback rock tune of “New Generation,” he moves to a Kings of Leon Only By The Night-era style B-side with “Ruthless,” lambasting a partner for their animalistic tendencies: “We were growing like an orchid / I tried to be all you wanted / The flowers that we watered… you ripped them out / Oh my God, you’re ruthless.”

james arthur
Coat: Kyle Ho | Shirt: Represent | Trousers: Represent | Loafers: G.H. Bass | Rings: Giovanni Raspini | Bracelets: Giovanni Raspini

Ballads and “Just Us” 

While this is certainly a rock-leaning record, the general public’s understanding of Arthur as a balladeer is still present on this record. In alignment with his biggest, most beloved ballads, Arthur places “Free Falling” at track two and “Is It Alright?,” which acts as a sort of finale ultimo, at the tail end of the record. “Is It Alright?” is, undoubtedly, a career-best. When the bridge kicks in, the orchestrations begin to lay the groundwork of an imminent key change, with the end result being a glorious arms-open-wide screlt fest for Arthur: “Is it alright… if I lay with you, just for one more night? / Let’s evade the truth and go BACK TO THE FIRST TIME we both felt the same / And WE WERE JUST FALLIN’ like tears in the rain.”

Rock material aside, a slower song like “Just Us,” placed around a third of the way through the record, feels… heavier. A telling of a love with actual, legitimate stakes: “I’m so tired of runnin, I’m sick of letting you down / It’s been a lonely road, but it’s all over now / it’s just us from here on out.” The pop stars we grew up with aren’t the hungry kids scratching and clawing to realize the dream anymore… they have growing families. They’re settling down. Some may even want to take a step away from the stage. For Arthur, “Just Us,” which he says is about coming to terms with what true love is and how to love those around you, is all too real.

“I think about my daughter when I write songs like this,” he said, fatherly protectiveness kicking in. “When I tap into that feeling of love, she’s very much at the forefront of my mind. She has become a huge motivation in my music.”

james arthur
Coat: Won Hundred | Shirt: TOGA | Trouser: DANSHAN | Shoes: TOGA | Rings: Giovanni Raspini | Bracelets: Giovanni Raspini

Leaving a Legacy 

An unspoken aspect of this record is that it feels like a definitive line in the sand for critics to acknowledge. Pop music is often a punching bag to those outside its orbit, so Arthur fully dove into a sound he would only get critically dinged for if he blew it. “I want to keep getting better and I want the respect of the industry,” he said. “I think that’s what happens when you get to the point I’m at now… people start taking you seriously. A body of work I’ve built over 10 years.”

Arthur’s place in the industry is a strange one. He scored a bonafide smash early on after gaining major public notoriety, at a time when said smash was ripe for the picking with other songs just like it dominating public consciousness. That smash paved the way for other artists to break onto the scene doing the same thing. It shot him into the stratosphere, but at what cost? Is that kind of moment a fair talking point over a decade later if that artist has a list of accomplishments and accolades long enough to fill up a drugstore receipt? This record is a Hail Mary. It’s a “Hey, yeah, that was cool, but look at this,” kind of record. It has made Arthur himself contemplate his artistic and personal legacy. Legacy… a keyword that needed to be touched upon, but that he himself brought to the table.

When probed on the idea of his legacy being, at this point, more about public image vs how he is looked at by those most important to him, his answer was diplomatic. “I think it’s both things… it’s multi-faceted,” he said. “I’ve got many more years left in the game.” He has already begun mapping out what those years look like, even past the era of Bitter Sweet Love.

james arthur

For A Daughter

“In some ways, I feel like my career is just starting,” he said. “Finally, after five albums, I really feel like I 100% back myself. I feel like I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m really taking this seriously, and I’m really interested in evolving and becoming better at the craft of songwriting. Being a better lyricist… a better melodic writer. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really big hit songs, but I’m more motivated than ever so I try not to look at those achievements too much and keep looking forward. Also, more importantly, I want my daughter to be proud of the work that I leave behind.”

Arthur is heading out on a massive tour this year… from the end of January to the end of August across the US and Europe.

Stream Bitter Sweet Love: