Review Summary: Purest James Blake. Contains no added instrumentation or extraneous musical elements.
Released to much hype at the time, and in the process of being nominated for a Mercury prize, Blake's eponymous debut is his signature sound distilled to its absolute essence, in a collection of ambient, melancholy dubstep far removed from more commercial exponents of the genre such as Skream or Caspa. Though they mainly use rather different musical palates to express themselves, the mood of the album tends toward the isolationist, introspective 2-step of enigmatic producer Burial, himself nominated for a Mercury in 2007.
Stripping down the music even further from the already sparse textures of his CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs, most of the tracks are built on pianos set alongside soft ambient loops, undercut by the distinctive half-time drumbeat that the genre is well known for. However, tracks like 'Lindisfarne I' take this minimalist approach to the extreme, relying almost entirely on Blake's layered and treated vocals - a gambit that's not entirely successful when combined with oft-meandering song structures and vague lyrics bordering on the equivocal. Too frequently, as on album closer 'Measurements', or the aimless cut-up 'Why Don't You Call Me', the songs lose their sense of direction and grounding, simply being content to drift, albeit pleasantly, to understated conclusions.
Despite these compositional flaws, when Blake works within more song-oriented strictures, his somewhat unique sound can reap stunning results. On the Feist cover 'Limit To Your Love', nimble piano riffs and an untreated, cracked vocal combine to subtle yet devastating effect, before dropping out to be replaced with shuddering sub-bass and metronomic drums, only Blake's isolated, lonely vocals remaining. Alongside 'The Wilhelm Scream', with it's beautifully rising melody and soft, jazzy backing, 'Limit To Your Love' represents the most pop-minded, and perhaps not coincidentally, most effective moment on the album. Having said that, equally worthy of note is 'I Never Learnt To Share', whose solitary vocal line grows into a glorious, multi-tracked mesh of voices, before further building to a sawtoothed crescendo of synth and bass - aural proof that Blake is more than capable when working with traditional dubstep elements. Such highlights as these more than make up for the occasional dip in quality later on in the album.
At the end of the day, the album falls under the wing of that old cliche - 'showing potential'. Damming with faint praise that may appear to be, but in this case the potential is merely a hair's breadth away from being realized - If Blake can tighten up his songwriting and expand on his highly distinctive core sound, he could have a long and productive musical career ahead.