Thursday, 22 December 2011

Album of the Year - James Blake

Keeping up with - and listening to - large amounts of new music can sometimes be an arduous task. Sure, it has its upsides, and us writers make the effort because of the love and passion we have for the medium. But the path is littered with disappointments: albums that promised so much and failed to deliver, artists who go wayward and lose focus and, more often than not, tracks that are soporifically tedious.

However, all these missteps are worth it, because occasionally you hit gold. Nectar from the gods; manna from heaven. When a new artist enters the arena and is almost instantly laden with the weight of expectation from just about everyone but still perfects the secret of aural alchemy, that satisfaction is exponentially more acute.

At the start of 2011, 23-year-old producer and musician James Blake released an album worthy of such plaudits. The Londoner’s self-titled LP has all the hallmarks of a free-thinking maverick – it’s brave, challenging and experimental – but repeated listens reveal a keen ear for a pop song and writing nous which belie his limited experience.

The first time I listened to James Blake, I was drawn in by the trickery and cleverness. There’s a carefully shaped burst of white noise within a few seconds of the album starting, and it’s a good indication of what’s to come. Glitches, tempo changes, bizarre sounds and heavily treated vocals are the order of the day. I finished the record impressed, but thinking it a bit too pleased with itself to warrant classic status.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. On the very next listen, it all fell into place. Once you’re expecting the oddities, they’re not shocking, they’re perfect and lovingly arranged. Paying less attention to these elephants in the room allows the quality of the tracks to really shine through. Sure, some of them may not be songs in the traditional sense – more mood pieces – but they’re as emotionally affecting as the most heart-wrenching ballad or adrenalin-creating dance anthem. As soon as the record finished, I immediately put it back on and listened to it the whole way through again; I haven’t done that with another album since.

Despite its electronic body, James Blake truly has a beating heart. Its tracks are brittle, vulnerable creations, displaying the full extent of human fragility. Lyrics are minimal, Blake preferring to convey feeling through the intricate layering of textures, but rarely has an album so digital created such a connection. The Wilhelm Scream is a haunting elegy which completely envelops the listener with innovative use of stereo. I Never Learned To Share is a masterpiece in building tension which explodes into a cathartic, torrential downpour of electricity and magnetism. Limit To Your Love has a helicopter bassline so heavy it measures on the Richter scale. When Blake does commit to vocals, he prefers to bury them in a cloak of effects and auto-tune, but they still reveal a man baring his soul to the world.

With the possible exception of The xx, there’s nothing that sounds anything like it. The label of “post-dubstep” has floated around, but there’s no overriding set of influences to pin on the album. There’s soul, R&B, folk and dance music at its core, but it’s also an album of contrasts. James Blake is ultra-modern yet rejects the present day trend, an exercise in studied minimalism. It uses more auto-tune than a Black Eyed Peas record, but sounds less robotic and forced than nearly anything you’d hear on the radio.

Critics have a tendency to jump to conclusions in the race to be the first with the scoop on a ground-breaking record, and often look foolish after the event. With James Blake, we now have the benefit of nearly a year of hindsight, and the effect of the album hasn’t diminished with time. The hype machine surrounding him may have built up, reached critical mass and crept back from whence it came within that time, but we’re left with the crucial artefact. Listen to it now and it’ll blow you away; listen to it in five years’ time and it’ll still sound fresh and vital; listen to it a generation from now and you won’t believe it was a debut album made in 2011. The ephemera surrounding the industry is just that – transitory and unimportant – so focus and what’s important and let this extraordinary record see inside you and become part of your life.

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