Review Summary: At the age of 21, James Blake may well have produced a career best, an album that will take a hold of you and not let go.
When I'm told that a band, or a singer songwriter or producer are going to be the next big thing, I greet the news with a certain skepticism that emphasises just how many times I've heard that praise, without the promise ever coming to fruition. Understand my surprise then, or delight for that matter, when I heard that this years next big thing, the artist carrying the often unwanted burden this time around would be James Blake; a man very much deserving of said praise. Unlike many, the first time I was introduced to the 21 year old producer was on last years breakthrough single, 'Limit To Your Love'. I heard it while driving to the local supermarket. I remember the moment vividly. This wasn't the average track you hear on primetime radio. My humbled car speakers were trying their best to keep up as the sub bass wobbled and the snare hits snapped, while in amongst the wreckage, a lone voice shone through, unusual yet familiar. Alienating, yet simply captivating. I was notably impressed with what I had heard, and by the time I had finally got my hands on his debut LP, my expectations had hit a ridiculous height.
Upon first listen, James Blake
is a disorientating ride. In the opening bars of 'Unluck', you're met with a simple keyboard line and beat, but amongst the simplicity is thrown a mechanical crunch which seems to swallow the surrounding noise for a brief moment before allowing it to continue on it's desired path. This 10 seconds or so of music quite aptly serves as a template for the album as a whole: the stark beauty in simplicity being stretched to breaking point by the musical wizardry that Blake has at his disposal. Whether that involves tampering with the pitch or timing of a vocal, or wobbles of sub bass engulfing a calm silence, he manages to offset his simple songwriting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. It's rare to find an album that can walk this line as expertly as this does. At times you think the whole thing could just capsize on itself but it never does, it keeps itself on that tightrope and reaches the other side in one piece. You can witness this balancing act on many of the tracks on James Blake
. None more so than 'I Never Learnt To Share', with it's repeated refrain of "My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them". The song starts off a cappella, with Blake repeating that same lyric over and over, each repetition adding a new layer of vocal, creating a wall of emotion, half regret, half resignation to the situation that befalls him. A very human side to Blake shines through in these lyrics, you could almost sympathise with him in his plight, but you soon realise that your sympathy is not wanted here. There is no back story to support this situation Blake finds himself in, he doesn't want to dwell on the reasons involved. It's at once personal and distant, a much needed catharsis which Blake has chosen to share with us. A solitary keyboard line eventually rears it's head, flat at first, but building to a swell. A brief moment of silence then Blake drops in a steady beat, joined by synths that veer all over the place, darting in the background, totally at odds with the controlled emotion in Blake's voice as he continually repeats that same aforementioned lyric. This all builds to a monumental climax, and probably the only moment on the album where Blake lets his tight grip of control ease, and lets his club roots really shine through with some low end that will shake your very foundation, while razor sharp synths squeal and bounce around, pummelling you into submission. As I mentioned before, it's this juxtaposition of calm against chaos that lends this album it's charm.
Aside from that brief flurry, James Blake
is a very clean album, and by clean I mean very precise. Every beat, every symbol hit, every shudder of bass is exactly where it should be. This may sound like a bad thing, like there's a lack of care and emotion involved, but that isn't the case here. An analogy springs to mind, that of interior design. Picture a post modern living space. Every surface free of any clutter, very minimal, very exact. It could come off as cold but for the fact that you know how much love and attention has gone into designing it, allowing you to make yourself comfortable with your surroundings. This is the exact feeling I get with a lot of this album. At first cold, but bit by bit letting you in, allowing you to get comfortable and absorb its warmth. This is mainly down to Blake's voice, not utilised as much in his previous works, but fully at the forefront here. His voice has a strange beauty, as much angelic as it is nonchalant, but always engaging. As I mentioned before, he does manipulate his vocals extensively, but a lot of the time they are in their raw form. Even when his voice is skipping and bending and being taken up multiple octaves, it doesn't detract from them being very affecting, as showcased in Lindesfarne I & II. Much like Bon Iver did with the track 'Woods', on these two tracks we find Blake feeding his vocal melodies through a thick layer of auto-tune, distorting the voice to the point where you can barely make out what he is saying. Also like Bon Iver, this isn't employed as a gimmick but rather as an instrument in itself, adding atmosphere and a certain fragility to the song. A loose beat teams up with the vocals in the second part of the song which seem to let the song take flight, soaring and swooping to the end, and into the aforementioned 'Limit To Your Love', a Feist cover that borrows her piano and vocal hook, stripping it down and slowing the pace. Blake uses silence to great effect here, as he does elsewhere on the album. You can hear his breath as he readies himself for the next line. It draws you into the recording booth with him, feeling that you're getting your own personal performance.
There are two tracks that stand out from the rest in terms of length, those being 'Give Me My Month', and 'Why Don't You Call Me'. At first these can seem like throwaway filler, songs to make up the numbers. However, they do serve a purpose. 'Give Me My Month' is not like the rest of the album, it doesn't fit in with the precision and calculation of the rest of the tracks on offer. There is a very loose feeling to the song. We hear Blake's classical background come to the fore as rolling piano chords compliment his voice perfectly. There is no vocal enhancement found here, it has a very organic feel with Blake lamenting over a lost love, a missed opportunity: "Give me my month as a lucky one, Let me see where she is going, let me see where she has gone". At just past the halfway point of the album, 'Give Me My Month' serves as a massage to ease the tension before directing us on to the final run in. 'Why Don't You Call Me' starts off much like 'Give Me My Month', just Blake singing with only a piano for company. One verse in, Blake flips the track on its head. The soothing piano chopped up into pieces which stop and start abruptly, and the vocal pitch is stretched up several octaves as Blake repeats the first verse. This comes back to the point I was making earlier about Blake's methods. An organic, simplistic song beaten around the head and left to fend for itself. It shouldn't work but it very much does. The two halves of the song meshing and creating something entirely brilliant. This shows just what Blake is capable of, how easily he can switch styles, mid song even, and make it work.
The final two tracks round the record off very nicely. 'I Mind' quickens the pace somewhat, with it's woozy synths and floating vocal loops swirling around woodblock percussion and rapid-fire clicks. It's probably the only song of the bunch that could be played in a club setting. 'I Mind' leads into the closing track, 'Measurements'. 'Measurements' is the perfect closer. Blake's voice is beautiful here, his words followed by a bobbing bass line. As the song progresses, multiple layers of vocals are stacked on top of each other, creating a sound reminiscent of a gospel choir. It sounds timeless, like an ancient relic dug up out of the ground, the dust blown off, the glitches and scratches a remnant of years kept in isolation, buried away from human contact. You could apply that same analogy to the album as a whole. Although this is very much an of-the-moment record, it does have a sort of timeless feel about it. Genres and sub-genres don't belong here, songwriting like this transcends all of that.
is one of those special records that doesn't come around too often. As beautiful as it is haunting, as delicate as it is bold, and as warm as it is distant, it truly captivates you. The fact that this is his debut makes it all the more exciting. It has a maturity and a majesty about it that defies it's creator's young age. If this is what James Blake is producing at the age of 21, I can't wait to see what he comes out with in 5 years time, that truly should be something outstanding. Whether or not he will ever better this album remains to be seen, but I would bet everything I have on the fact that he will continue to put just as much love and attention into his music, and I'll be doing just the same thing.