If you pay close attention to the hype cycles around the music world, there’s a great chance you’ve heard of James Blake. The 23-year-old British artist/producer began to make a name for himself last year when he released three EPs of music that’s often been described as “dubstep”. The word is in quotes there because the definition of dubstep varies from person to person and in the end is probably not the best word to use when talking about James Blake’s sound anyways. What he did on those EPs was to craft a subtle electro-based dance landscape from synths and vocoders and a host of other very modern computer-related bits, and then typically added vocal samples from a number of old school R&B artists ranging from Aaliyah to R. Kelly. Oftentimes those vocals were so mangled or chopped up that you couldn’t tell who the original artist was anyways. It was fascinating stuff, and original enough to get him not only noticed but the subject of a number of “2011 Artists to Watch” lists. The assertion was only supported further by Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that came out late last year as an advance single from his self-titled debut record. Oddly enough, his version of the song, which paired very sparse piano and his own voice, was pretty different from his prior EP work. It also turned out that Blake’s voice, which had been used very sparingly on the EPs, had a certain fragility and emotion locked within it, drawing easy comparisons to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Antony Hegarty.
For his debut full-length, James Blake foregoes any vocal samples from other artists, along with some of the more danceable moments of his earlier EPs. Instead he’s made what amounts to a quiet exercise in minimal, somber electronica paired with some serious soul/R&B influence. He sings on most every track, though you can’t always call what he does singing considering how distorted or chopped up it gets. That’s part of what makes this album unique – it’s the way he’s able to blend some of the most classic elements in music with some of the most advanced technology available today. A great reference point for the sound would be to say that it’s like if Burial, How to Dress Well and Bon Iver had a baby. Opening track “Unluck” plods along with some synths and the slow click of a metronome while there’s some skittering electronic percussion that sounds a lot like a spray paint can being shook up and periodically applied to a brick wall. Blake’s soulful vocals are heavily run over with Autotune, to the point where it’s just a little tough to understand what he’s saying. But as things move along the synths build and then fade and Blake’s voice begins to build upon itself until there are multiple Autotuned versions singing either in unison or working a harmony angle that’s halting, weird, haunting and beautiful. Similar to how Kanye West repurposed Bon Iver’s “Woods” for the track “Lost in the World”, “Unluck” takes that same concept in the opposite direction, instead of making a club banging rap track it remains a somber meditation with dragging electro-beats and synths instead. “I don’t know about my dreams/I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore/All that I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, fallin'” are the lines repeated over and over again for the duration of “The Wilhelm Scream” (along with “love” replacing all the “dreams”). It’s an aching and clear vocal from Blake, spread atop some quiet synths and laid back beats. The more times Blake runs through those lines though, the louder the noise behind him becomes, until eventually the synths and the beats overtake his vocal, leaving him just an echo in the distance, before dropping out quickly back to their original quiet state. Despite the lack of variation in the lyrics, Blake’s repetition goes a long way towards forcing the song to be memorable, and there’s enough going on in the background to prevent it from becoming an annoyance. In that sense there’s a little bit of genius in the song.
On “I Never Learnt to Share”, there’s even fewer lyrics to go on, as the lines, “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/but I don’t blame them” are again repeated ad nauseum. Blake’s vocal is the only thing you hear the first three times he runs through the lyrics, but each time adds another overdubbed harmony to increase the complexity and beauty of it. Once that’s clear, the synths and a beat come in low at first before finally building to a somewhat loud and vibrant lyricless final minute that’s just as interesting as the 4 minutes of development that preceeded it. The Autotune is once again very liberally applied to “Lindisfarne I”, a track that is 99% vocals, save for about 4 or 5 single keyboard notes that brush across the sonic palette in the last 45 seconds of the 2.5+ minute duration. The point of the song is less about the lyrics, which are again indecipherable, or even the strength of the singing really. These things are more of a means to an end, the ultimate goal being to explore the pregnant pauses between the words. At some moments Blake finishes a line and then purposely waits just long enough in silence to make it uncomfortable before dishing out the next one. If it sounds like some pretentious bullshit chances are it is, but the restraint and calculation of it is pretty damn impressive. The sequel “Lindisfarne II” is still Autotuned, but in a way where you can understand more lyrics, and with some backing beats and a quietly strummed (but distorted in the background) acoustic guitar. Blake’s cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” is the centerpiece of the record and the most straightforward thing you’ll hear on it as well. His clear vocals are strikingly great and dramatic, his cadence exactly the same as Feist’s on her original. The lush, symphonic elements of the original are stripped back to just piano and voice, though with a couple small electro-noise interludes between the lines. It’s tough to outdo Feist on her own song, but Blake’s very sensitive and quiet approach to the track brings a special quality to it you won’t find anywhere else.
The second half of the record features a number of odd choices that challenge as much as they confound. The very brief “Give Me My Month” is yet another piano and voice track that matches up very well next to “Limit to My Love”, and it’s one of the few moments of respite before things go off the deep end. “To Care (Like You)” is a glitchy electro-synth track that sees Blake manipulating his voice to sound somewhere between a woman and a child for about half of it, essentially creating one odd duet between his regular voice and the severely tweaked one. They switch off what might be considered verses in a very strange but lyrically strong love song. Remember when everyone carried around Discman portable CD players instead of iPods? The biggest flaw with the portable CD player was always when you were doing something active with it or accidentally dropped it in the middle of a song and it’d skip. That was sometimes even the case if your CD was scratched up enough. The track you were listening to would skip around, searching for the next clean spot to keep playing at. The experience would often give a song a disjointed feel, and courtesy of the songs “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “I Mind”, James Blake exploits this issue to no end. “Why Don’t You Call Me” begins as a simple piano and vocal song before getting chopped about. With a simple auditory click you’ll find yourself in the middle of a lyric or chord already struck and being held, and it’d be cause to worry if it wasn’t the same on every format you can listen to the album on. While “I Mind” is very similar, it uses the various chops in audio to create an interesting sort of lyricless groove that works a tiny bit better than you might imagine. It’s one of the few genuine moments on the album that feels like Blake’s 2010 EP stuff, though he’s sampling/cutting his own voice rather than anyone else’s. To close things out, “Measurements” has a very gospel-like feel to it, with some soft and sparse synths assisting a gigantic choir of all James Blakes. He must have overdubbed his voice about 10-15 times to achieve the effect, with everything from baritones to sopranos mixed in and even a touch of Autotune. And as the track drifts off into the night, the synths make their quiet exit, leaving you with just Blake and the many versions of himself. It’s a pretty gorgeous way to end the album and provides a very accurate auditory representation of the hazy photo of Blake that is the album cover. Even when the whole thing is finished you’re still left wondering just what version of James Blake is the real one.
There’s so much that can be said about James Blake, and much of it will either confuse you or just plain give you the wrong impression. What’s written here is probably no different, as this self-titled album is a challenge and a half to describe accurately. It’s a big part of what makes Blake such a compelling artist though, because he defies easy labels or cliches. There’s not much of any song structure or set format across the entire record, even if he does use a lot of the same tools over and over again. Between Autotune and lower register, subdued synths and various slow beats, you’d think a modicum of stability would be established at some point. Just the differences between his EPs and this full length are striking, let alone from track to track. Yet it’s those same elements, purposed and repurposed on the album that provide it with a solid base from which to work. The use of technology to update classic sounds as well, plays a huge part in what makes Blake so original. This Autotuned, electro version of old school soul and R&B can be a bit off-putting and bothersome, especially to long-time devotees of those genres, but the subversion is remarkably refreshing if that’s something you’re looking for. Similarly, this may be the very first album that’s able to use the highly robotic and emotionally stunted Autotune and give it real warmth and feeling. Partial credit goes to Blake’s dramatic singing voice, but the other half is with how he arranges it, either with overdubs and harmonies or with backing melodies that provide ample assistance in that task. Putting all of these varying factors together makes James Blake’s debut album one of the best and most interesting things released so far this year. Given how odd it is, a wide range of reactions is to be expected, but if you’ve got a great degree of appreciation for slow, quiet and innovative music, Blake might be one of your new favorites. Now then – where does he go from here?