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My #RSD13: James Blake’s James Blake

With James Blake‘s self-titled debut album seeing a Record Store Day reissue this weekend, Seb Law and Alex Cull decided the time was nigh to revisit – and debate – what’s been one of the most divisive dubstep releases in recent years.

I’m not one to knock artists, especially those coming up and doing something new, but I’ve been genuinely mystified by the continuing popularity of James Blake. After the release of CMYK (one of the best and most influential EPs of the last few years), I was excited. Perhaps too excited in hindsight, but when someone pretty unknown drops a 4-track EP that mashes awesome pop with dubstep (before this was a route to surefire chart success for the likes of Disclosure, AlunaGeorge, Bondax et al), an EP that I listen to still with regularity, I tend to get excited.

Then the self-titled record – with Blake’s ponderous whelps over downtempo ambient noodling – seemed like a complete volte-face. And in many ways it was. He’s a thinker, this one, an academic, and apparently that’s incompatible with partytimez. I’d argue that it’s not at all: you can mix intelligent electronic music and happiness – it’s just a shame that Blake never took that route. That said, I’ve seen this brand of music captivate audiences, in much the same way as Joanna Newsom, come to think of it. You wouldn’t think a harpist with impossibly-timbred vocals would be a success in a large arena, but at Latitude a few years ago, she stole the show – that could have been other inputs though… Anyway. Seeing Blake thrill an entire field full of Norwegian hipsters (and a fair few cynical British journalists too, I might add) made me take another look at the album, but it still fails to connect for me. For me it represents a brilliant failure (emphasis on the brilliant, not the failure). I could harp on about how much I enjoyed Blake’s ‘CMYK’ approach, and the disappointment of the record that followed (on a personal level, at least), but the fact remains that this was still a hugely successful album, and one that continues to keep people spellbound. I just wish I loved it more.

- Seb Law

I, for one, fall into that spellbound category, though landing in that group wasn’t necessarily straightforward. At first, I too was skeptical of Blake’s change in direction following on from – the admittedly wonderful – CMYK; on spending time with the infinitely more sullen Klavierwerke, I was certainly cautious, and my initial impressions of James Blake were much the same. While I had trouble appreciating the far more dour sonic persona in which he was now draping himself, the turning point came one particularly sleepless university night. I’d chosen to get a reasonably early night in but contrary to my plans, the group living directly below me had chosen my ‘recovery’ night to host a get-together that bordered on Roman. As I winced at the tired party standards springing from the stereo below – The Baha Men’s ‘Who Let the Dogs Out‘ being a particular low point – I was brought to attention by a familiar set of resonant chords; it was the opening passage to Blake’s ‘Limit to Your Lovecover. Hearing the raucous rabble on the floor beneath belting along to the track’s titular refrains of “there’s a limit to your love”, I was moved to ponder the way in which Blake’s music connects with people. This is far from ‘Midnight Request Line‘, and yet here it is soundtracking some serious revelry.

A lot’s been said by ‘dubstep diehards’ about the betrayal felt as a result of Blake’s move towards more introspective, soulful electronica, but the fact of the matter is that he’s a man who’s in love with sound and truly gets music, so why should he be lambasted for pursuing an alternate trajectory? James Blake may not be an album rooted in the dancefloor footwork of his earliest EPs, but it’s an enchanting listen nonetheless; one that’s rife with headphone moments to truly get inside your skull, and yet its ‘big’ moments are more than enough to get people singing along into the wee hours. Slip this record on late at night though, with the bass way up and your best headphones to hand, and you’re likely to drift off into sweet hypnagogic bliss, and that’s enough to keep me awake – and listening – to this day.

- Alex Cull

James Blake’s self-titled album is re-released through Universal on April 20.

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