James Blake is not unique in his predilection for bending, chopping, and fracturing melodies until all that remains is a sonic mosaic of meticulously arranged, stained-glass shards. He is also not the first vocalist possessed of such soulful affect that his album cover image of a skinny white kid in a trench coat induces double takes. What makes Blake truly remarkable is the tension of those devices presented in tandem.
On 2010’s EP’s The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke, the London-based producer employed alien, forward-looking sounds to achieve an uncanny familiarity, warping his own voice and the sampled vocals of R&B divas around asymmetrical sculptures of wonky sub-bass, twinkling jazz percussion, and glitchy synth squelches. On his self-titled debut full-length, Blake straightened out those kinks into sinewy slow jams, letting his full-throated croon take center stage while maintaining hints of the eclectic knob-twiddling that made him so beguiling to EDM and dubstep crowds in the first place.
This simplification continues on Overgrown where Blake ventures even further from his experimental electronic roots into more traditional song structures that adhere to R&B and gospel tenets. The acutely pitch-shifted vocals, fragmented melodic loops, and disintegrating dance floor rhythms that were prominent in Blake’s early career have moved from focal points to mere embellishments. It takes some getting used to; the transformation is akin to a cubist painter dropping the angles and edges for a deep dive into aesthetic realism.
Fortunately, the subject matter remains unchanged — Overgrown explores the delicate, inner workings of Blake’s emotional core, a compass that’s calibrated along the wobbly axes of longing, loneliness, and estrangement. Understated, elegant, and aglow like a candescent stove burner turned up to its lowest setting, Overgrown takes time to heat up (several listens at least) but once the temperature gets there, it’s an inviting place to invest your hours.
There’s a dead of the night stillness and somnambulant intimacy to Overgrown that befits intent, nocturnal listening. The title track relies on little more than a pattering of cymbal taps, a soft organ, and Blake’s miraculous voice for color, its clean arrangement and spacing acting as an enormous canvas for the song’s subdued blue hues and muted sepia tones. It’s dark and quietly sultry without ever feeling unctuous.
First single “Retrograde” has gorgeously subtle chord changes that are underscored by Blake’s little inflections and vocal runs. His softly hummed intro is looped into a backing melody that steadily builds until a whining synth siren launches it into the stratosphere — it’s as close as Overgrown gets to the eye-popping climaxes of precursors “The Wilhelm Scream” or “Postpone.” Blake is less enamored with being an aural auteur and boundary pusher, instead focusing on bare melody and whisper-thin texture to evoke a broad range of emotions.
Blake’s lyrics are often as sparse and impressionistic as his sound — there’s frustratingly little to grasp onto in Overgrown. You rely less on the actual imagery evoked by Blake’s words and more on their repetition, context, and nuanced phrasing to tease out the feelings behind them. On “I Am Sold” the recurring line “We lay nocturnal/ Speculate how we feel” lingers uneasily over a creeping bass line, but on the glowing album closer, nearly the same thoughts (“Our love comes back/ In the middle of the night”) exude acceptance and hushed contentment.
“Take A Fall For Me’s” murky piano dirge feels weighed down by guest star RZA’s stilted, lackadaisical rhymes (“Candle light dinners of fish and chips with vinegar/ With a glass of cold stout or old wine or something similar”) which feel more like a clichéd caricature of British life than heartfelt storytelling. It shows how delicate the balance is in Blake’s artistry — insert a guest rapper and the wispy atmosphere becomes little more than an old Wu-Tang motif, stoned out and stripped of its teeth.
More often than not though, Blake gets the subtleties right. On the title track, Blake likens himself to “a stone on the shore” and a “long door frame in a wall,” carefully marking his place in a dissolving love affair with images of insignificance and vacuity. Blake urges a lover to stay away from a bad relationship on the finely woven “DLM”, but there’s a shocking twist — “Don’t let me hurt you” he begs in a broken voice. He’s imploring her to seek protection from himself, as if his own desires are something he’s incapable of halting. It’s a provocative twist on the “don’t go to him” pleas that usually dominate R&B songs.
Blake isn’t above libidinous urges either. “Voyeur” features the maniacal, endlessly repeated line “And her mind was on me” — a moaned mantra whose prurient impulse is only augmented by cowbell, slinky bass tones, and the song’s suggestive title. The fact that Blake chose to include “Voyeur” on Overgrown instead of the more trance-inducing, climactic “dub” version (whose drop is ridiculous, by the way) is evidence that he’s more interested in mood crafting than reaching a sustained high.
Even “Voyeur” and Brian Eno-produced “Digital Lion” (which are about as close as Blake gets to a dance floor) are fairly straightforward, never truly duplicating the extra-terrestrial, frenzied lurch that Blake showed mastery over on old favorites “The Bells Sketch” and “CMYK.” The jittery nerve generated by those weird, wonderful sounds is gone — replaced by Blake’s plaintive vocals which, while wonderfully emotive, feel oddly incomplete without digital altering.
Normally when singers auto-tune and pitch-correct their vocals, they’re criticized for being inauthentic. But in Blake’s case, the overt note warping, audio filters, and deconstructive manipulation are actually missed — they add an essential warble and character to his softly-textured performances. Blake’s songwriting idol Joni Mitchell might have been able to yodel me-decade anthems over nothing more than an acoustic guitar, but Blake’s cocktail of post-millennial rapture and anxiety is best served with a heavy dose of the thing that causes those feelings — technology.
Jame Blake has always teased us with the idea of being something more. Something more than dubstep, than R&B, than EDM — a pioneer in the direction of music itself. On Overgrown, while Blake achieves polished-to-glass smoothness, it feels like he’s resting a bit, consciously toning down the risk taking and experimentation to make his mark as songwriter in the truest sense of the word. It’s a worthy, admirable endeavor that may help catapult him within pop music circles, but hopefully it’s merely a slight sidestep, a repose in Blake’s march toward something massive. Instincts say that if Blake can employ his unparalleled breadth of skills into a masterwork that is inventive as the three EPs, as impassioned and epic as “The Wilhelm Scream,” and as self-assured as the dark, dramatic maturity Overgrown displays, we’ll be in for something truly remarkable.
James Blake – “Overgrown” – mp3