James Blake | James Blake | R&S Records | 2011
For nearly two years James Blake has been slowly bubbling under a sea of hype, one that appears to be reaching a head with the release of his debut album, as well as Blake’s inclusion in the BBC’s Sound of 2011. Described by critics itching to pigeon-hole as ‘post-dubstep’, the singer-producer’s debut builds on the three critically praised EPs released last year, The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke. However, James Blake moves away from the dance floor to a more pop-influenced sound, and is more in tune with classic soul, contemporary R&B and electro pop than anything found on Hyperdub.
Opening track ‘Unluck’ is a good summation of Blake’s music. Starting with simple piano chords the producer introduces deep-bass, sparse beats and cut-up static, the piano morphing into hazy synths underneath the singer’s soulful voice. The combination of pop with a sub-bass rumble is an effective trick Blake employs throughout his debut, and at times his production is incredibly impressive. One highlight, ‘Wilhelms Scream’, places the singer’s soulful croon over a dismantled dubstep beat and atmospheric reverb. The beat builds steadily before shifting into a slow dirge of muddy vocals and watery synths, all melting in a swell of sub-bass, re-building to a climax of static and dispersing into a distant thump.
However, although primarily a producer, it’s Blake’s deployment of his own manipulated vocals that separates him from his peers. In some ways, James Blake feels similar to Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak - Kanye’s vocal manipulation created a tension between lifeless mechanical processing and the highly emotive sound of autotune, combined with his distressed, embarrassingly open lyrics. Blake’s songs are equally as personal, a trait that works well with his often cold and moody production. The artist clearly has concerns – on ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ he repeats that “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them”, hinting at some turbulence in his life – but at times he chooses to hide behind his effects. For example, the heavy use of autotune on ‘Lindesfarne I’ finds the singer’s lyrics inaudible, leading to a conflict between the closeness of his voice and the decision to wrap them in echo. Perhaps he doesn’t want us to hear everything.
While Blake’s honesty and openness is refreshing, James Blake is far from flawless. There’s plenty of ground for him to improve as a songwriter – closing track ‘Measurements’ brilliantly layers his voice into a gospel choir, but cries that “you’re not on your own” fall dangerously close to soft-rock sentimentalism. Elsewhere, ventures into pop come with mixed success. The lead single, a cover of a Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’, is the most overtly pop track on the record, but after the opening piano passage drifts into silence we are indulged with a heavy drop of “wobble dubstep” deep-bass, rumbling underneath a two-step beat. The effect comes over as gimmicky, especially when watching the single’s video. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it achieve some crossover success, Blake would do well to steer clear of such a bandwagon, because James Blake displays far more promising possibilities for the artist.
James Blake will be released on 7th February on R&S Records.
- Jack O’Halloran
Check out Jack O’Halloran’s spot-on review of the new James Blake LP above via Nightbus. Great call on the Kanye comparison! I never thought to make that connection. Also, check out my review of this record here, in which I make some similar points.