“I’m the opposite of punk. I’ve subdued a generation.” Words uttered by the mystical creature that calls himself James Blake. Blake’s career has been a masterclass in breakthrough success. His 2011 self-titled debut was like manna from heaven for bored music critics the world over. His haunting vocals set over creepy yet gloriously spare electronic production were like a diamond in the bleak rough of generic pop. His lyrics are also painfully honest, painting a picture of awkward loneliness in love and youth. There are fiery songs like “Limit to Your Love” and wounded songs like “The Wilhelm Scream”. “Never Learnt to Share” is a perfect example of these aspects coming together in the way it builds from acapella harmonies to a massive synth sound at the end. What underpins them all is Blake’s innovation, the way he takes cues from genres like Dubstep and manipulates the ideas in such an intelligent and surprising way.
Discordance characterises much of his sound. At times, it’s even quite difficult to get a grip on his songs because of their stark individuality. His second album, ‘Overgrown’, had many of these tricky moments. In a discussion with one of my fellow Blake lovers, we agreed that there was a time and a place for ‘Overgrown’. There were times that it was just too weird and you had to switch to the most formulaic Katy Perry song just to remind yourself that the rules were still very much in place. He’s not trying to make songs that you want to listen to everyday, that you can sing on the way to work and party to with your friends in the sun. This kind of music is meant to make you feel. Just like many paintings aren’t immediately beautiful to your eyes, this music isn’t immediately harmonious to your ears. Sometimes you feel so uncomfortable you think, “Surely he can’t add more synth into that scary mix?” But Blake isn’t afraid to make a sound so ugly that you almost wish it wasn’t there.
In delicious contradiction, silence is another thing that Blake masters. Songs like “Retrograde” have the power to make even the most stone hearted among us cry. It’s tender and emotional but still hugely powerful. It opens with just Blake humming over the piano. Next is a simple clapped half beat and some gorgeous layering. All the while, the music reverberates in this cushioned silence. It gradually builds, retaining the muted quality, before exploding into a synth-filled chorus. That juxtaposition between echoey silence and meaty synths is as jarring as it is moving. And here’s the self-consciousness again: “You’re on your own/In a world you’ve grown”.
Since his 2011 debut, he has enjoyed immense success. Not only has he collaborated with the likes of Bey, Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, RZA and Kanye West, he has also won a Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello. He has influenced pretty much every artist in his particular sub genre (Jack Garratt, Låpsley and FKA twigs to name but a few), and made such a big name for himself that Madonna called his music “the kind of thing that makes me jealous”. He is now, however reluctantly, a BIG cheese with the music world hanging off his every note.
Into this drops, ‘The Colour in Anything’, his highly anticipated third album. At a huge 17 tracks, it’s like an Odyssey of electronic soul. I say soul because this is Blake’s most affecting, most soulful album. I wonder if he takes notes from Joni Mitchell, whose song “A Case of You” he covered beautifully. Mitchell said of the album’Blue’, “there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals.” The same could surely be said about Blake’s offering. The title of the album is the surest sign we’re about to witness something religiously candid. The song it takes its name from has these sorrowful lyrics: “And how I told you what I’d do/If one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything.”
Reflection and introspection is what makes Blake such a strong songwriter. “Put That Away And Talk To Me” has a hip hop beat underpinning auto tuned vocals that lament Blake’s utter lack of inspiration associated with smoking too much weed. There are so many sounds in this song its hard to know where to start. Claps, clangs, clatters, it’s like a musical elf tap-danced across a sound effects board. But it comes together perfectly, as we’ve come to expect, and illustrates the confusion of a hazed out mind. A different manifestation of his ability to look within is “Choose Me” which puts its point across more subtly. It has a similar sound but its lyrics reveal a more emotional kind of introspection. He encapsulates the pain of a crumbling relationship with both his voice and his wounded words: “I looked into myself like a case with you/You don’t weigh me down like you think you do”.
The opening track, “Radio Silence”, reveals that he has retained his penchant for bassy rhythms and unorthodox synths. However, it also foreshadows the plethora of new ideas he peppers the album with. Most notably, he’s cranked up the hip hop vibes. Some of the production is something you’d expect from Destiny’s Child circa 2000. “Timeless” is the track that was supposed to feature Kanye, before the whole thing sadly fell through. Even without the mighty Yeezus, the track is still one of the most memorable on the album. Here and in songs like, “I Hope My Life”, Blake’s dance roots come to the fore and give groove to the chaos. You can see why Bey wanted him for her album. This is a man that can make hip hop edgy again. It’s because of people like him that Bey and Ye are able to make the kind of experimental sounds they do now.
Yet Blake is a sensitive soul and no amount of hip hop can drown that out. He is a man that knows love without the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia.”Points” is one of the most vulnerable songs on the album. Blake’s mix of silence and discordance come to a head, with its dark electronic background and eerie loops. It’s punctuated by insights that make the heart hurt in their desolation:”But you were made alone/And I was made alone”. “f.o.r.e.v.e.r” reminds us that Blake can sing over just a piano and make the whole room cry as easily as he can make them dance. It’s a song about love, but not in the conventional Valentine’s way. He brings it to earth in the very first line: “Don’t use the word, “Forever”/We live too long to be so loved”.
“I Need a Forest Fire” deserves its own paragraph. It’s none other than Bon Iver, come to remind us that he is, in fact, the king of song. This is a match made in alternative heaven. What they have created is a beautiful peek into the mind of two geniuses. Never too much, produced with a light hand but not spare by any means. Harmonies, hopeful electronic piano chords, layering, and those sweet sweet voices stirring up emotion you didn’t even know it was possible to have.
So set aside an hour and join me in a musical awakening. Prepare to weep, groove and smile all at the same time because this man will pull on every heartstring there is.
Peace and love,
[Picture source: http://www.be-street.com/james-blake-three-new-songs-off-his-new-album/]