For someone who was yet to release a full-length album, James Blake found himself entering 2011 with some lofty expectations. The four EP’s that he had released in the last year and a half have produced a tremendous amount of buzz for the 22 year old Londoner; landing him on several Best-Of lists as well as the runner up for BBC’s annual poll showcasing rising stars.
On paper, you have a young producer with a background in piano and an amazingly powerful and soulful voice which should seem like prerequisites for some success. But when you listen through his material you find elements of dubstep, soul, R & B, and all sorts of different electronic blips and bleeps all throughout. His music can often times veer off to complete chaos, yet always under control and often reduced back to nothing. It is very rare that you find music this experimental being anointed as the next big thing and it will be interesting to see how the public responds to his self-titled debut album, James Blake.
The only thing we’ve learned to expect from Blake through his first batch of EP’s is that you have no idea what to expect. His songs have the ability to push you towards the dance floor or force you to listen in a room by yourself with complete concentration; sometimes in the same track. The buzz about him traveled through all different genres – fans of dubstep may have the desire to see him continue exploring the electronic landscape while fans of soul may prefer to see a heavier reliance on his voice. For Blake it doesn’t seem to matter as he uses all of the weapons at his disposal for his debut.
The music contains a very minimal approach, yet there is a tremendous amount of detail in the production. He uses auto-tune and other kinds of digitized vocal manipulation but the amazing feat that Blake pulls off is his ability to convey emotion through these mediums. Lyrically his songs usually consist of just a few lines, but are reinforced by repetition as well as jarring and disjointed rhythms.
The first single to be released from this album was a chilling cover of the 2007 Feist track “Limit to your Love” which quickly went viral over the internet. Unlike most of the previous songs released by Blake; this song has a much more conventional structure. Blake shows off his raw vocal abilities and gives this track the feel of a stripped down soul ballad, interlaced with some dubby buzzing that should not be listened to on low volumes.
Those hoping for some more dance-ready tracks akin to last year’s “CMYK” on the new CD may be disappointed. What we have here is a collection of emotionally charged; yet simple and sometimes tender tracks with much more structure than some his more experimental EP’s. On “I Never Learnt To Share” we find Blake repeating the line “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me; but I don’t blame them” over a simple synth line and electronic kick drums as all of the elements rise to a crescendo. This minimalist structure turns the seemingly childish lines into a hauntingly beautiful song.
That track settles down into the two-part “Lindisfarne” which can easily be confused for any of Bon Iver’s best tracks (which in no way is a knock on Justin Vernon who is cited as one of Blake’s major influences; it should only be a matter of time until you’ll find him in a Kanye West hook). On “Lindisfarne” we find Blake once again repeating a phrase dubbed over with auto-tune – the first part of the song just contains vocals and uses silence effectively to create a sad tension and intrigue; the second part of the song introduces a gentle drum beat breathing new life and emotion into this track.
Those who have heard some of Blake’s EPs and mixtapes may be expecting tracks with a little bit more bounce; instead we’re left with 11 tracks that reveal James Blakes abilities in a far greater way. And if you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with his earlier releases; do yourself a favor and check them out. His talents as both a producer and a songwriter are very impressive in his full length debut and it should be interesting to see where he will take them next.
Written by Jesse Zryb