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James Blake Album Cover

Review: James Blake- ‘James Blake’

James Blake has become a tricky one. With so much being written about the young star it’s difficult to know what is left to say. It seems best to assume a reasonable amount of knowledge on the guy whose face it’s practically impossible to avoid when walking through London, his blurred mugshot adorning billboards, magazines and Tube posters. It’s been well documented that for his debut LP, Blake was inspired to step up to the mic and experiment more with his own vocals after giving Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ some spins. However, the comparison between Blake and Vernon extends beyond the multi-layered vocal harmonies and heavy use of the vocoder/autotuning (for which ol’ Bon first evidenced his penchant on his track ‘Woods’, later to be re-recorded for Kanye’s Twisted Fantasy ‘Lost In The World’). For me, it goes a lot deeper than that.

Critics have bleated on about the fact that Blake’s debut album basically consists of the singer’s warbling, with the odd piano tinkle and off-kilter beat. Admittedly, aside from the heavy sub bass on the now ubiquitous cover of ‘Limit To Your Love’, there’s very little on this release which even hints at the more conventionally dubstep influenced sounds of old, during Blake’s emerging days producing and releasing with Hemlock (though to be fair, not even previous releases ‘Air and Lack Thereof’ or ‘CMYK’ verged properly into the Bar 9 or 16 Bit skull crushing bass assault territory that is synonymous with the genre). However, much like Justin Vernon made a singer-songwriter album using little more than guitar and voice- something that has been done a million times before- and yet managed to produce something surprisingly non-derivative, authentic and haunting, Blake’s album manages to tread the similarly well worn path of vocal and piano composition, but still inject that tried and tested formula with something inventive, and which impresses technologically, as well as which resonates on a deep emotional level.

It’s impressive how the album manages to pull inventiveness from a well worn blueprint. Blake noted to The Guardian that he wanted to “make sounds that he’d never heard before”, and he somehow manages to achieve this from a setup that is essentially keyboards and voice (with the odd bit of studio manipulation here and there). Although none of these comparisons truly hit the nail on the head, the closest relevant touchstones would probably be cuts from Arthur Russel’s ‘World of Echo’, Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ or (speculatively) if you were to somehow convince Stephen Hawking to imitate Bon’s falsetto and try his hand at the repetitively epic ‘The Wolves Act I and II’.

On the first few listens of Blake’s debut I levelled the same criticism to it that I initially made about ‘Crooks and Lovers’ by Blake’s live cohorts and fellow (ugh) “post-dubsteppers” Mount Kimbie. Although the latter is undoubtedly more beat driven than ‘James Blake’, most of the tracks on Kimbie’s full length were incredibly sparse and ambient in comparison to their efforts on the ‘Sketch on Glass’ and ‘Maybes’ EPs, and their LP proper initially seemed a massive let down. Although there is little that immediately engages on ‘James Blake’- in the same way that, say, ‘CMYK’ did- after a few listens where you really concentrate on the record, its nuanced brilliance starts to emerge.

Although ‘James Blake’ is sometimes astonishingly simple in terms of its constituent elements- ‘I Never Learnt To Share’’s singular repeated lyric and the unaccompanied vocoded singing of ‘Lindisfarne I’- the cumulative effect of the album amounts to more than the sum of these parts. In fact, when Blake does less with the songs, holding off a bit on the compressed, jittery percussion sounds- as in both beautiful ‘Lindisfarne’ movements, ‘Measurements’ and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’- it makes the predominantly melancholic tone to the release all the more piercing. Much like ‘Lindisfarne’ gradually builds across its 2 movements, from a barely audible gasp to a sorrowful wail, the tracks that might seem to have the least body to them end up, after a few listens, having their melodies etched in your brain.

The 23-year-old also mentioned in his interview with The Guardian that dubstep continues to appeal to him because “it has everything…rhythm, sound design, heartfelt emotion – all in one place”, although I’m not sure that most would immediately associate “heartfelt emotion” with the genre begot from grimey Croydon clubs. Although Blake constructed his tunes using Logic in his bedroom late at night after playing DJ sets, his debut projects the same sense of solitude and sadness that bleeds from the tunes that Vernon penned in a remote Wisconsin cabin, eventually becoming ‘For Emma’. The background and recording process for each album may be completely different, but the end products are not a world apart. There is as much of the sense of authenticity, catharsis and emotional gravity to be found in the release from this former Goldsmith’s student as there is from our Midwestern Kanye collaborator.

Ultimately, James Blake’s debut is not mind-blowing. It would- as Louis Pattison of The Quietus quite rightly noted- have probably been better released as an EP or mini-album which had ‘Unluck’ (and in my opinion, ‘To Care (Like You)’) cut off it. Honestly, for me, culling one or two tracks from the release could have infinitely improved it. However, it is definitely a very brave effort, not least because it’s an unexpected move, and possibly the least commercially viable thing Blake has produced; these tracks are too peculiar for regular singer-songwriter daytime radio territory, and not beat orientated enough for a club or DJ mix.

Blake has retained the inventiveness promised by his earlier releases, managing to create a wholly individual sound from a limited musical arsenal. He has crafted a slow burning collection of emotionally infused songs that for the most part get better with age, as I’m pretty certain Blake himself will do too, if he is given adequate time in the face of all the hype.

-Tim Robins

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