James Blake - James Blake
released 7 February 2011 on Atlas
The new artist hype machine is a very powerful force, but it’s difficult to remember a time it’s gone into overdrive in such a way like it has with London-based producer James Blake over the last few months.
Two observations about this seemingly insurmountable wall of hyperbole. First, despite having just released his debut album, the backlash has already started, with industry commentators already denouncing his work (presumably because it’s yet to solve world famine). Secondly, as you may or may not know, there is a professional tennis player also named James Blake. That James Blake has had a twelve year career, achieved a ranking of World number 4 less than five years ago and has earned in excess of $7million in prize money. However, do a Google search for “James Blake” and which one comes up first? The successful sportsman or the barely-out-of-his-teens producer? What do you think?
This hype isn’t without basis though. Two of his EPs from 2010, CMYK and Klavierwerke received plaudits across the board. It’s fair to say that James Blake is eagerly anticipated.
So, it’s cards on the table time. James Blake is an astonishing record, an early contender for album of the year and could well change the face of popular music. That may seem like wild exaggeration (and after the previous three paragraphs, I appear to be revealing myself as just as bad as the rest of them), but it truly is that good. It’s inventive, it’s brave, it’s bursting at the seams with ideas and it’s a captivating listen.
So, how to categorise James Blake. The short answer is that you can’t. He’s obviously influenced by the dubstep movement that’s come to prominence in the last few years, and he employs the studied, sparse minimalism of fellow Londoners The xx. However, this only goes some way to describing the sound. There’s shades of ambient music, drum and bass, hip-hop, soul, and DJ Shadow style cut-and-paste work. However you describe it, you’ll do better than British tabloid, The Sun, who saw fit to bestow upon Blake the frankly horrendous new genre of “posh-step”.
Within a few seconds of first track, Unluck, it’s clear this isn’t your ordinary album. Simple beats are brushed aside by a burst of stormy noise on the off-beat, immediately making you sit up and take notice. This is followed by ticking percussion, a high-pitched hiss, heavily treated vocals, harmonies, a crackling crescendo and the track falling in on itself. That’s more drama than most artists pack into an entire album, and we’re three minutes in.
What’s most striking about James Blake is the use of silence. Leaving space in your work is commendable, but this is on another level altogether. The way silence is inserted into tracks makes you yearn for the next note or beat. It’s almost disconcerting how affecting it can be; the barely-there Lindisfarne I has periods of seven seconds with no sound whatsoever.
Another recurring theme within James Blake is tracks darting off where you least expect them to. Why Don’t You Call Me appears to be an unremarkable torch song, then veers into a haunting soundscape that seems to have been cut up and reassembled in the wrong order. The Feist cover and recent single, Limit to Your Love, uses a rattling, helicopter blade of a bassline that’s so commanding, it vibrates your entire body and rattles the fillings in your teeth. It’s extremely rare to find an album that’s so challenging and boundary-pushing while remaining such an enjoyable listen. The first few spins will blow you away, but once you’re used to the odder traits of the album, the melodies shine through and it’s quite a traditional LP in parts. Lindisfarne II has an understated, almost pastoral undercurrent running through it, but the juxtaposition between that theme and the tuned vocals is a real delight.
If you were to encapsulate what James Blake is about in one song, I Never Learned to Share would be it. Blake isn’t exactly prolific with his lyric writing, and this song contains repetition of just one line - “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them”. It begins a cappella, before a second voice accompanies, sometimes echoing the melody line, sometimes slightly discordant. Warm synths lead to a quasi-triumphant false climax, before beats enter and the layering begins in earnest. The tension is ratcheted up bar by bar, with white noise creeping in around the edges before becoming more prominent, louder, and then louder still. The track seems ready to explode, and it does, into a primal, cathartic disco riff, dripping with effects and, somehow, sounding almost magnetic. The melody line oscillates and twitches, the beats pulse and the track ends on a thrilling high.
It’s not a perfect album, sadly. Give Me My Month, in particular, is a disappointment; sub-Anthony Hegarty warbling and a baffling inclusion. But nearly everywhere else, there’s joy to be found. There’s the stereo effects on The Wilheim Scream, where the vocals in one channel are marginally behind the other, there’s the multi-part harmonies in soul-influenced Measurements and there’s a sudden rush of calypso drums in I Mind.
James Blake is an absolute treat for the ears. He straddles genres at will, plays with perceptions of what pop music is about and is clearly prodigiously talented. In fact, for a debut record, James Blake is ridiculously assured. It’s enough to make you green with envy, how someone so young can absorb so much and make it wholly their own in a way no-one else does. Ladies and gentlemen, a star has arrived.
I bet his two-handed backhand is rubbish though.