Review Summary: James Blake v2.0
Last time around, Mr. Blake was displayed to the world as poster boy for the very temporarily named “post-dubstep” movement. It’s not quite sure what the idea behind gifting this title was: whether James and co. were going to fill the carcase left behind when dubstep’s mainstream heyday inevitably ended, or if it was seen as a natural progression with the genre smoothly squeezing into something mum would like, too. Unsurprisingly, neither of these things happened -mostly because dubstep should have never been brought up in the first place- but Blakey certainly did happen. However, now the context has petered out his self-titled debut is looking pretty shaky on its own. It’s made it important for Overgrown
to prove JB is capable of sticking it out without the momentum he benefited from before; which it does, for the most part.
The interesting thing to note about Overgrown
is how James is simultaneously moving his music towards both experimental and popular styles. He’s like a painter trading in finger painting for bold, expressive brushstrokes in order to abstractly create an image of mummy and daddy in front of their house. Sirens with raw percussion combine with increasingly dynamic melodies to make up the more modern colours in his palette, and rhythmic progression takes the place of repetition as James’ go-to method of building momentum. The end result is a much groovier and more professional James Blake: he even left in some of the whining to assure us it’s still him.
The general rule when weighing up individual tracks in Overgrown
is “old is bad; new is good.” “Dlm,” the piece most resembling his 2011 debut LP, marks a rare low point as it aptly describes just how much better James has got at this whole music business. Compared to the rest of the album, the awkward piano notes and pushy soulful edge seem frail and insubstantial: especially sandwiched as they are between siren-fest “Retrograde” and slick, Brian Eno collaboration “Digital Lion.” “Dlm” just ends up feeling like a brief intermission to remind us how much James has grown up.
Keeping the negatives in mind in order to stop this sounding fanatic, let’s dive into the first real slice of opinion: Overgrown
is absolutely fantastic. James has really reeled back in his weakness to whining and oversaturated, overburdening production, leaving a much more measured, varied and dynamic album. Take the opening title track as an example: James’ voice is now lifted by the production instead of smothered by it, brief spurts of strings and piano raise the track to a fever pitch without pushing it up to melodramatic levels and a lovely, understated use of percussion keeps everything tasteful. The old James Blake tropes are definitely in effect, but it’s moderation over excess for now.
peaks when James embraces styles he’d only plucked up the courage to flirt with before. “Life Round Here,” for instance, flows with RnB vibes in a very playful, matter-of-fact way rare amongst anyone with similar skin pigment. “Take a Fall For Me” represents his biggest gamble as he welcomes rapper RZA to share the limelight. It also represents one of the album’s highlights as James uses his techno-wizardry to enhance RZA’s performance instead of subscribing to the classic rap verse to song chorus structure.
Although it has its fair share of weak spots -it wouldn’t be a James Blake album if it didn’t- Overgrown
proves James Blake is worth the hype. He’s well on his way to becoming a mature and consistent musician, but with his penchant for rapidly picking and dropping styles we’ll unlikely hear anything quite like this again. However, if Overgrown
is anything to go by he’ll carry on with the best of the old, which should only mean he’ll continue to get better.