Review Summary: This is James Blake, a man only loosely tethered to earth, now completely letting go.
James Blake, the chameleon, knows something about being placed under pressure. There's something to be said about being the underdog, flying defiantly and bravely under the radar, but this is a notion that Blake has never really been familiar with. Ever since our first taste that came in the form of his 2009 12-inch Air & Lack Thereof
(and not forgetting his hypnotizing remix of Untold's 'Stop What You're Doing'), he's never really been too far from our minds. Now factor in the holy triptych that was his output for 2010 (The Bells Sketch
, and of course, Klavierwerke
), and you can understand where the pressure is now coming from. It would seem that James really has a lot to answer for; how does a 22 year old straight out of art school sound so world weary, and well versed in lonely travels? How has he been able to say so much while hardly saying anything at all? And how has he been able to progress at this almost lightning quick pace, constantly eluding the pigeon holing and placement we feel we need to bestow on him just so we'll finally be able to grasp his music and properly dissect it. He's changed his colors so often and so quickly, almost as if he's never wholly satisfied with where he wants to be and how he wants his audience to perceive him. He arrived and began his journey as nothing more than just another addition to the long line of dubstep artists who forgot the concept of a steady beat, just another in the school of thought that decided their percussion would be an irregular heartbeat than an anchor, pushing the music forward out of time and rendering it breathless. Then he went pop, warping r&b hooks and spreading them thin over more immediate beats before separating himself entirely with the frustratingly awkward yet constantly rewarding Klavierwerke
But what does that all mean for his debut long player? Well, not an awful lot to be honest. Just like Darkstar's recent turn to something a little less becoming of where their traits generally lie, Blake's difficult enough to pin down even when you do get a vague sense of what direction he's decided to head in. And just as we were given the opportunity to sample Darkstar's new wares before they dropped North
(with their initial single bearing more than a few similarities to Blake's current frame of mind), we were also fortunate enough to hear the initial beginnings of what this was to become; and yet it's still a shock to finally be able to witness just what shape he's taken this time, how cathartic and soul baring he's become. Granted this revelation of his apparent inner turmoil is still concealed, hidden behind masks and blurry images, its mystery however, only adds to its prominence. Perhaps it's that pressure that's been steadily rising since day one that causes Blake to almost completely turn his back on his accomplishments in favor of the more unorthodox and abstract circles he's moving in lately, sheepishly rebelling against the hype and the hope. Perhaps it's just his very nature though, too busy sketching out new identities to sit still long enough to put out back to back similarities. Maybe it's the claustrophobic nature of being somebody
that makes him re-emerge as a hopeful nobody. Which would work, if he wasn't so damn good at everything he touches. But maybe at the end of the day all of this was just preplanned. Maybe everything we've heard from this man already was simple noodling borne out of the mind of some bored 15 year old stored away one rainy day only to be picked up some years later, dusted off and put out for public consumption, for no other reason than “why not?”. And if that is the case, all we're left with now is James Blake the adult, out of school and thrust into the world, sitting up late at night in front of a keyboard swapping pop hooks for soul ones, trading in the skewed vocals for his own. Removing the swirling mists that formed the borders of his musical terrain and leaving nothing in its place, matching the regret in his voice with silence and void.
Even though Blake has the talent to disintegrate and then reassemble himself in an entirely new mold, he always does so while retaining aspects of all his previous forms, as if they somehow become imbedded in him during the transformation. For all of its alien qualities James Blake
does revolve around moments of impersonal familiarity. You can hear it buried deep in the one-time-only blueprint that Blake has assembled for this new round, intermittently rising its head above the glitchy and limp like garage beats and the echoed delivery, every now and again punching holes through this new template of his. You can hear it on 'The Wilhelm Scream', that blissful 'CMYK' line boiling just below the surface, slowly building in pressure, challenging Blake's mournful tones. He even partially regresses back to the more simplistic nature of The Bells Sketch
on album opener 'Unluck', just trading in the controlled chaos for more open plains, chopping his Bon Iver scratching a soul itch vocals over hazy synth bursts and lazy percussion. It's a number that finds itself slightly more anchored and steady than what it precedes, but it's a weight that's constantly losing purchase in the ground, scrambling along the rocky terrain, resting intermittently.
The biggest surprise on offer, aside from the shockingly new musical terrain, is the cat out of the bag vocals of James Blake himself. He hides himself in various guises yet all of these identities seem to come together on 'I Never Learnt To Share'; his layered one man gospel approach reflective and haunting in its minimal nature, before he attempts to loose himself in the ensuing pandemonium of his dilemma, his voice still managing to seep through though, destroyed and shaken. Or when he follows Kanye's robotic fantasies on 'Lindisfarne I & II', and tries to turn himself into something that will render the sorrow moot. His more naked approach to music continues here after being heavily introduced on Klavierwerke
, though it's turned down a notch and left open to grow, his piano work nurtured and slightly reworked, now saying more with less. Notes are left open and jarring, allowed to play out to their final ring, others left hanging in empty space. But all of this is secondary, all of it now second place due to the transformation of James Blake the producer to James Blake the songwriter. His voice and vocals are the true star here, not so much shining as just having the dust pulled off them. His voice seems to come in from a slight distance, almost as if he's insulated the microphone in styrofoam, or phoned in the vocals through tin cans and string. But it works to his advantage, that kind of scratching and whispering through the walls atmosphere molds itself fittingly to the fragile nature of his voice; before his samples evoked shiny and effervescent feelings of requited hope and fulfillment, on here his own voice paints pictures of all that lost and left at the wayside. And it only adds to the ethereal like quality when you picture him in that room by himself, recording them in the light of a single bulb and delicately layering them again and again, that one light piercing out the windows like a beacon over the darkened city.
Perhaps all of this was to be expected, as its been documented already how quickly Blake discards and moves on. It was no surprise that this was going to be something incredibly unique, but for an artist already regarded for being defiantly left field it's still a little surprising to hear just how far into the unknown he's actually tread. Be it when he moves through dying garage beats or nervously floats through shades of chamber pop and futuristic r&b and merges it with strained yet wistful soul charms, the transformation is still nothing short of startling. But did I really need to be surprised when all I needed to do was look at that artwork, to see caught on film just another one of Blake's blurred identities escaping from him and moving into its own recess somewhere, waiting to do it all again. Or, have they all escaped him now, all the various guises that he hid behind fled into the night, leaving Blake alone with his thoughts and only himself to communicate them. Whatever the case may be, the result is a certainty, an expertly assembled declaration. This is James Blake's pop album, and by that I mean Blake taking pop and completely draining the color out of it, moving only in the remaining negative space. This is James Blake, a man only loosely tethered to earth, now completely letting go.