Review Summary: Wow.
This year has always been destined to be a barn burner. Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Anohni, and more were poised to release noteworthy albums, and so far none of the major releases this year have been bad. Even artists whose artistic integrity and staying power were not in question like David Bowie pushed themselves to make intensely powerful and experimental records. The fight for album of the year is bound to be more exciting and worthwhile than this year’s American presidential election, and with more likeable and undeniably brilliant characters to boot. And integral to many of these releases has been reviewer favorite James Blake, whose pen and piano has found itself in the works of Beyoncé, Drake, and Kanye West. Despite being in and around the production of almost every great album of this year, he’d managed to stay resoundingly silent about his own work. His self-induced “radio silence” made everything he did, a cover here and a retweet there, earthshattering. Using this technique to near-perfect effect (Kanye and Beyoncé were clearly influences on his A&R team), Blake’s third album arrived surprisingly yesterday (midday if you’re in the US and at midnight in the UK) and defies almost everything we knew about Blake as an artist and as a personality. Blake’s notoriously insular music has become grander and more introspective, his soft paeons now resounding choruses and powerful pleas. In short, The Colour in Anything
is the sound of Blake emerging from his cocoon and grasping at the sounds and sights that the world has to offer.
is Blake’s most experimental record yet (and that’s saying something considering that his first album came to redefine experimental pop music). Songs like “Two Men Down” and “Always” warp James’ voice in weird and unexpected ways, lending the tracks an otherworldly quality. This is particularly true of “Two Men Down,” which takes Connan Mockasin’s guitar licks and rappels with them into the ether. “Always” has Blake dueting with sporadic samples of himself against an instrumental that’s equal parts Radiohead and Nils Frahm. Production-wise, it’s notable how present his voice is throughout this album. Even as he warps his vocals and throws them through multiple effects (his trademark vocoder and AutoTune make triumphant returns after being absent on Overgrown
), they remain centered in the mix, and lend the tracks a unity that makes the album feel more like a coherent journey through different landscapes.
And while the vocals may be noteworthy, the production is the marquee attraction here. Blake enlisted a number of co-conspirators in this effort, including Connan Mockasin and Rick Rubin, and their respective influences can be felt across many of the album’s tracks. With a heavyweight like Rubin manning the boards, one can imagine Blake losing himself in Rubin’s signature styles or catering more towards Rubin’s sensibility. Thankfully Blake is more than able to retain his own sonic signatures, and the tracks never stop sounding like a James Blake production
, whatever that means now. I say that because Anything
takes Blake’s sound in a number of interesting and visceral directions. “I Need A Forest Fire” takes the folky pop of Bon Iver’s Blood Bank
and merges it with the emotional R&B that Frank Ocean and others have been hammering home since 2012. It’s one of the most accessible songs in Blake’s catalogue, matching and in some respects exceeding “Retrograde’s” sensual otherworldliness. “Modern Soul” has Blake flexing his gospel muscles more forcefully than he has on any other project. Everything from the chords to the stomp-clap chorus scream James Cleveland or Mahalia Jackson. Second single “Timeless” marries Blake’s balladry with jagged hip-hop beats that recall prior excursions like “Take A Fall For Me.” But this time around, Blake sticks the landing. “Radio Silence” is probably the first and only effective entry in a music style that can only be characterized as waltz-trap. And then there’s “Points,” the bassiest and wubbiest of the tracks here. It takes Blake’s vocals and loops them in a weird time signature (it feels like 3/4, but it may just be a weird 4/4) while applying jagged bursts of bass and a synth horn that Jamie xx wishes he’d used. At times the dissonant sonic threads can become a bit too much, but there’s always a strong animating idea or force at the center of the tracks.
Thanks to the varied production, this album has a great deal more replayability than Overgrown
. While much of Overgrown
existed in singer-songwriter/dewy ballad territory, Anything
’s strong experimental force allows it rival his debut in its transformative potential. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (I can already see someone like Ian Cohen at Pitchfork or Robert Christgau just hating it), but given a little bit of time many of the more outré moments start to hit you in a more poignant way. Fans of Blake’s older output will love that Blake’s largely returned to the warped sampling and jagged hip-hop that put him on the map. Fans of his distinct brand of nocturne will also find themselves pleased, and this crowd-pleasing “play the hits” style of album construction helps the album overall. But the best thing this album has going for it is the writing. Blake’s always been one for obtuse paeons and slow-burning mantras, but Anything
finds him delivering some of his most direct lyrics yet. On “I Need A Forest Fire,” a clear standout, he pleads for someone to stop him before he “builds a wall” around himself. He’d rather burn everything down (the titular “forest fire”) before again succumbing to his loneliness. On “Love Me In Whatever Way,” Blake looks to contort himself into whatever form his lover wants him to be simply so she’ll reciprocate his affection. “Tell me when I have to go, and love me there/Tell me where I have to go, and love me there,” he cries. The theme of self-effacement is prevalent on a lot of Anything
’s tracks, and Blake’s journey of self-actualization and empowerment makes for the album’s more endearing and compelling lyrical moments. By the time that the last song rolls around, Blake’s growth as a person and an artist becomes clear.
One of the more interesting things about Anything
as a project is how permanent it already feels. From the first listen, you can see that the album’s going to grow on you. The worst tracks here possess any number of qualities that I can see myself growing to in time. And the best tracks here feel as effortlessly timeless and emotionally resonant as Blake’s best work. I’ve often noted in some of my other reviews just how much of an influence James Blake has been on other artists and the industry in general. Everyone from Drake to FKA twigs has found something in Blake’s music. But Blake himself has always moved forward. Overgrown
, for all its faults, was a better album than his self-titled, and this album feels like a step on from the last one. This kind of artist progression is hardly seen in popular music (no one could credibly argue that Pablo
are better than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
or Take Care
) and speaks to a kind of true artistry that I really appreciate. Even in his experimentation, Blake’s music remains engaging and powerful. Like its predecessors, Anything
is an intensely personal record, and will likely leave some people cold. But the mark of a truly brilliant and progressive record is one that can endear itself in ways that no other record can, hitting in a distinct way that no other artist or album could. The Colour in Anything
is that kind of record, and stands head and shoulders above all other releases this year in doing so.