Review: James Blake615947'Overgrow615957'

18 April 2013

I guess I loved this album instantly because I could hear the sea all over it.

The first time I’d ever heard James Blake, I was in a red-lit room late at night in a small house, eventually compelled to dance alone - very slowly. Everything that Blake creates, however varied - is perceptibly held together by a common thread of delicacy or tenderness, while still making it so vital to just move. The 2011 album wasn’t a pure strain of anything I’d really listened to before - was this a piano singer/songwriter, some sort of new age gospel and R&B, an anachronism on the current horizon of digitized-soul? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter really.

Three EP’s down, James Blake was the purported “prince” of post-dubstep, a speck of brilliance amidst the sea of dubstep and general electro trash. Then that first album with its room-shaking Feist cover threw him some mainstream appeal. It was strange understanding the hype that surrounded him - he wasn’t even the intimate dance music that seemed to be all the rage then, he was just haunting.

James Blake has grown from his eponymous debut, but truly overgrown - a little outside the confines of structure. His previous was a cohesive unit - built on artificially created negative space, pauses, and fragments of voices rushing frantically into each other.

He’s a prolific guy - channeling restlessness into frequent experimental releases - filling the space between full lengths with Trim and D’Angelo remixes (under the Harmonimixes moniker), fruitless owl-like collabs with Bon Iver, and work-in-progresses that found their way into our computers and hearts and bodies.

When the first single ‘Retrograde’ came out earlier this year, I think the Internet exploded with anticipation a little bit. Built from a simple hummed melody on a gospel-like handclappable rhythm, it’s so hard not to like - it was the obvious choice for the first leak. There were the familiar bursts of passionate synth, more emotionally-relatable overtones drawing you in to the lyrics, nothing too deviant in terms of production, so we couldn’t entirely see what was coming but were intrigued and hooked enough to stay feverishly waiting.618551'Overgrown

“And we lay nocturnal, speculate what we feel”, Blake’s voice wades in and out of thought, dragging us underwater and back to the surface, waves crashing on a shore somewhere. There’s moonlight on this album, and there’s a warm but ice-sculpture-ridden winter. The unexpected collaborations likely arose out of boredom, and as he said in an interview, cabin fever. Not the most unnatural choice of collaborators/advisors in Brian Eno and RZA, and there’s so much propulsion on this record. There are slow climbs and suddenly a track is pulsating; or suddenly shattering into insistent slivers of skittering rhythms under vocal harmonies.

As a ‘Polite Promise’ sentimentalist (a 2009 BBC radio-rip), I’m a little thrown by the RZA rework: ‘Take A Fall For Me’ - it just didn’t work for me, at first. What had started as an airy, atmospheric track - repeated refrains over arpeggios, voices pitch-shifting and multiplying softly over themselves, was suddenly unrecognizable. Darker, and grittier, and heavier and halfway sinister. RZA rapping over this was a weird juxtaposition; it wasn’t a track designed to be badass - but breaks new ground for Blake anyhow. Another of the early leaks, ‘Voyeur’, starts out all jazz, on that transitional jazz-piano chord, before turning into this big party of cowbell. ‘Dlm’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’ are offshoots of his Joni-Mitchell-covering persona, while the latter escalates into Radiohead-esque vocal looping sections. Then there’s a Big Boi sampling bonus track, laden with reverb, and all you want to do is not sit still. This album is everything that James Blake has ever been so far, and a little more.

When interviewed 24 hours after the album was out, he said, “I bought it on my iPad and listened to it, it seemed alright. Then I had a cup of tea.” Between this album and the last, James Blake fell in love - a long-term long distance relationship, but one that’s admittedly helping shape his music, and given him (un)certainty, and a scattered sense of direction, but something solid nonetheless. He’s definitely upset about the way the label handled the release, leaking too much too early, until most illegal downloads just became inevitable. He has his hopes up on ticket sales, if only to afford a real piano at every concert, instead of just keyboards. And I can’t possibly think of a better reason to buy tickets to anyone’s gigs (so I did).

With James Blake, I’ve felt the excitement of growing up with an artist, like growing up with the actors in the Harry Potter movies; as tends to happen when you’re around the same age. We threw a party to celebrate the album launch, only the ‘truest fans’ invited - sitting in a living room around a digital lion made of fairy lights, all wearing James face masks, looking at each other intoxicated while bass flooded the room.


Words: Grishma Rao



Join Our Mailing List