The human mind craves order, and as much as electronic artist James Blake excels in creating edginess and imbalance in his music, what makes him exceptional is his ability to underpin the proceedings with deep, resonating patterns. Blake doesn’t create conventional pop music — he employs warbling distortion, oddly timed cut-aways, glitch-ridden piano loops, and a near-complete lack of verse-chorus arrangements. In many of the songs on his eponymous debut, there are long, pregnant pauses between notes, lending even the gentlest of sounds a sense of massive potential, like heavy objects raised high and poised to fall. But amidst the deconstruction and uneasy silences are moments of clarity, where the fractured pieces briefly align and you’re rewarded with subtle, breathtaking beauty.
As an up and coming dubstep producer, Blake’s been at the center of a sonic movement (detailed more fully in Pitchfork article New Vocabulary) that spilled over into the public’s consciousness in 2007 with Burial’s landmark album Untrue, in which ghostly vocal samples are spliced over beats and ambient electronics. While he’s only 22, Blake’s prowess in the studio is well-documented on EP’s The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke. But what makes James Blake truly stand out from previous efforts is the discovery that he’s been carrying a secret weapon inside his coat — that voice.
Blake’s emergence as an R&B crooner is nothing short of a revelation. Soulful, blue-eyed, and emboldened with a sense of aching beyond his years, his voice is one of the great ones; the comparison may seem brash, but consider if Radiohead began their career with a few EPs containing instrumentals similar to “Kid A” and “TreeFingers,” then decided to let Thom Yorke unleash his pipes as an afterthought on album #2. It’s that kind of ace up the sleeve that Blake’s got. It’s like he’s just been practicing with other people’s vocal samples on his EPs as a way of saying: “I can create this kind of tension with anything I find lying around in the record bin. I just wanted to let you know that before I sing my ass off.”
Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Blake’s voice is its malleability. Like liquid, it conforms to the space that it’s given. Alongside the acoustic guitar riff on “Lindisfarne, Pt. 2”, it recalls the pained longing of Bon Iver, when paired with “Limit To Your Love’s” sumptuous piano chords, it achieves Bryan Ferry’s effortless romanticism, and when placed within “Give Me My Month’s” baroque confines, it assumes Antony Hegarty’s unearthly timbre. Blake intuitively seems to know when to push his range, and when to reel it in; for every time he distorts and electronically modulates his vocals to add to your sense of disquietude, he finds the right moments when to leave it bare (“Limit To Your Love”) for devastating emotional effect.
While often enigmatic, the album’s lyrics teem with a sense of estrangement and sadness. On aptly-titled “I Never Learnt to Share” Blake reveals: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/ But I don’t blame them,” while on “Lindisfarne pt. 1,” Blake painfully wonders “Won’t tomorrow come?” And although aforementioned “Limit To Your Love” is a cover of a Feist song, Blake distills the original to its sensual, mournful essence, making the message all his own. It serves as the album’s taut, emotional center.
But the stand out track here is “The Wilhem Scream.” Rarely does the song of the year come out in February, but it’s hard to believe anything will top it. Over a bed of slinking, hazy synthesizers, Blake cries: “I don’t know about my dreams/I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore/ All that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling, falling/Might as well fall in.” It’s tender, sorrowful, and unbelievably sexy all at once — the kind of virtuoso vocal performance whose outpouring of naked emotion recalls D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” or Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” One YouTube user’s comment on “The Wilhelm Scream’s” music video claims: “Listening to this on public transport at night with good headphones is like mixing a panic attack with an orgasm.” Even without personal experience, I find it difficult to disagree.
For something so mechanized and spartan, you’ll feel a hell of a lot of things when you listen to this album. Minimalistic and delicate in execution, but gigantic in impact, James Blake is as much a personal paean to the complexity of Blake’s emotions as it is a universal mirror of our own. It’s hard to see how Blake will improve upon this record, but then again, I don’t think anyone saw the evolution between Klavierwerke and James Blake coming either. So delve in deeply and let this album take you where it will. And be sure to wear headphones.
James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream” – mp3
from James Blake, 2011 [R&S Records]
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