Review Summary: Love What Happened Here.
The career trajectory of James Blake has been thrilling to witness, a producer who has moved from detached explorations of dubstep to intimately personal confessionals without unifying genre. The stunning revelation was James Blake
, a solipsist fantasy that depicted through electronic music the headspace to its boundaries, the mind materialized as the most definite reality. So there was Limit to Your Love, a private realization of finite human caring, and A Wilhelm Scream, an internal monologue on the anxiety that bubbles around resignation. This was music that lingered in the post-traumatic numb, the futility of outward expression overriding the need for release or dialogue. Moreover, it revealed the man as a self-obsessed introvert with a genius for taking disparate musical inclinations – chilled dubstep, piano-geared singer/songwriter, digital vocal processing – and negotiating them in service of depicting, quite literally, his mental state. As a self-titled statement it was a classic, teasing its intricacies with listeners as recognition of his art compounded. So we fell deep into what it said about existence: that the mind offers escape into the most astonishing possibilities, yet that comes with the dread of complete disassociation from the external world.
One of the most chilling moments of James Blake
was the lyrical phrase at which Blake seemed to break the fourth wall of his mind, addressing the listener with cutting directness. Midway through the closer, the taunt comes to the surface: "telling lies that you’re not on your own.
" For an artist that imagines solitude as the most intrinsic state of being, this remark to the listener is brutal in its impact. So it is fitting that we first glimpsed Overgrown
with the lead single Retrograde, the first words Blake communicates as "you’re on your own, in a world you’ve grown.
" You see, Overgrown
has Blake openly speaking to us, hosting a dialogue in contrast to the insular headiness of his debut. That he has grown as both a man and a producer, his emotional intelligence developing in tandem with his command over sound, sets up Overgrown
to be one of the most gripping releases of the year.
James Blake recently described his sound as "melodic bass music," a phrase that serves as a surprisingly apt descriptor: soulful croons and tranquil synthesizers sublimate over warm, earthy bass pulses, intuition guiding elements through cool-blue canals of aural bliss. It cannot be overstated how much Blake has progressed as a producer, his mastery of sound programming at its creative peak. Life Round Here blends 80s neon-synths with punchy percussion, developing a slick groove before underlying, buzzing circuitry emerges to the surface, sparks flying in rousing denouement. Take a Fall for Me follows with a guest rap feature, RZA articulating Blake’s dialect through an introspective, emotive flow; it's an astonishing track, Blake playing hip-hop with the most assured confidence, appropriating sounds and genres into his crystal-clear vision.
But take Digital Lion as a singular representation of how innovative he has become: this is an experience in forceful bass immersion, building on the sound experiments of Klavierwerke and I Mind yet also infusing an appreciation for vocal melody and nuance. Enveloping bass fills the aural space, imagining a physical pressure imposing destruction on the self, before Blake appears in acknowledgment of the virtual reality he’s subjecting himself to: Digital Lion
. The desensitized passivity in his voice is clear, an artist drawn to dangerous mental spaces that are manifested as oppressive bass enclosure, yet we are as trapped: "I can hear you cry
," he intones, a numbed understanding of our mutual interaction with the music. He then halts the bass to near-silence for a full twelve seconds
(you'd think he's mocking our vague commentary on his usage of negative space) before an uncompromising drop into cyclic bass purgatory. Self-destructive impulses are suggested in the creative process here, framing Digital Lion as a startling piece of music. And if Blake's decision to melodically hum to the beat of the bass at the track's end is not evidence of total command of his art, then I don't know what is.
For all its shrouded meanings, the underlying theme of Overgrown
is perceptible, that of finding love after relentless solitude. Retrograde indulges in electro-funk to set up its climax, swelling to a moment in which Blake belts out "suddenly I'm hit!
" only to affix the realization: "is this darkness overgrown?
," pondering how love has replaced encroaching loneliness. It's a stunning sentiment after the mindset of James Blake
, the detachment of a man who once deadpanned love's limits now challenged by renewed faith. Elsewhere, Voyeur delves into the disbelief that another person can spend hours, days with their mind centered on your existence. The grody tone by which Blake stalls on the thought "and your mind was on me
" is unnerving, moreso by the digression into Euro-club beats and the implicated sleaze. It's likely a thought undisclosed to a lover, but what if it's interpreted as a remark to us, the obsessives who've spent the past few years trying to understand the man through his music? It's significant to note that this introverted musician is now communicating in arenas, thousands caught in the curious intersection between artist and audience. Now that this personal music is to be widely consumed, does that necessarily interfere with our private connection to it? Is it wrong to suggest that the insulation of the self-titled is "better," more "personal," or is that just psychological? Does this matter for James Blake in his artistic development, or are these just the musings of an over devoted listener?
It is reassuring that these are but the early stages of our bonding with Overgrown
, that this is complex art to be ruminated over as is the rest of James Blake's discography. So it is in the quiet sentiment of I Am Sold that Blake lovingly relates to us the fullest: "and we lay nocturnal, speculating what we feel.
" Here’s a toast to endless nights of speculation and to the beautiful, haunting music by which Blake will enrich them.