Review Summary: When I see the pictures of every life and the day they die / It's your image burnt into my mind
When "Retrograde" was released in February as the first single from Overgrown
it came as a welcome shock to fans and critics alike. Not only was the video artful in its juxtaposition of an asteroid impact with the longing conveyed, but it also redefined our expectations of James Blake. Taking a page from How To Dress Well's book of production techniques (a common trend lately), Blake eschewed the pervading future garage style of his self-titled debut in favor of a more intimate, yet simplified atmosphere. In light of this, releasing "Retrograde" first was an effective primer for his audience, in that it acts as a microcosm for the new direction of Overgrown
. "New" direction may be slightly misleading though; what's going on here is essentially an evolution. Blake's brand of subdued dubstep is still here, yet stripped down to its base elements with a heavy focus on detail - effectively restraining itself when prudent.
Admittedly, not every track can be as stirring as "Retrograde", but Overgrown
is still a dynamic improvement upon James Blake
. The record focuses much more on soul-laden balladry than anything else, showing off Blake's improved songwriting skills while casting a spotlight on his angelic tenor. This rectifies a serious problem on prior works in providing a concrete compositional direction - apparent immediately on self-titled opener "Overgrown", the new record is focused with not only well developed transitions, but also a vocal clarity never before heard from Blake. It's a logical improvement; the most popular tracks on his debut were merely cover songs (well-imagined at that, yet still not completely original material), while the rest were trite excursions into dubstep with seemingly scattered, inconsistent vocal interruptions. Overgrown
takes these missteps and eliminates them - instead opting for a vacuous, synth-heavy style capable of transporting even the most obstinate listener to a realm of introspection. In this sense, guest producer Brian Eno lends his unique methods to a fitting collaboration in "Digital Lion", a track that effectively combines both artists' talents into a percussive melange of ambient pop and soul. Most noticeably, the vocal processing work Blake puts in here should be industry standard. The tasteful combination of reverb and compression pervades a distinct empty auditorium vibe on tracks like "To The Last", where his voice completely takes over, dancing between an almost underwater solace and consciousness of reality seldom conveyed instrumentally.
Regardless of how well anyone can describe Blake's change in direction and forays into more progressive, atmospheric production, the real indicator of success here (and with any record) lacks quantification. The moments in life that forge the most base level emotions bear the best comparisons if any - the humanization of a hundred strangers converged upon a busy pub, laughing, crying, sharing stories, and living
; the moment one bites into a piece of fruit and that split-second of pure joy; the heartbreak of distance, and the happiness of reunification. These moments are the essence of soul music, music that comes from and affects that very vessel of humanity, expounding love at its most fundamental. Overgrown
is quite simply soul music in this sense, defying its own electronic classifications and galvanizing Blake's performance as important and even timeless. At its best, Overgrown
brings to mind Frank Sinatra's iconic In The Wee Small Hours
, a record that acts as almost a thematic analogue in its lonely tone and ultimate embrace of love as a painful yet beautiful emotion. Surprisingly, Wu-Tang's RZA brings this very insight to the fore on "Take A Fall For Me" in what is easily his best verse this side of Bobby Digital:
His heart turns cold like it was soaked in ice
Melt inside the heat of my passion, magnetic attraction
It caused a strong reaction
I need you like I need satisfaction
I need you like I need satisfaction
Don't turn away from me, what will become of me
If I can't show my love to thee there'll be none of me
You'll leave me with none of me
Not even one of me
James Blake is one of the few artists capable of taking criticism and reacting to it for the better; at this point, the twenty-four year old is already well on a path to greatness. Hopefully it continues.