James Blake is really imprisoning me, and seemingly the entire blogosphere, at the moment. It’s been a while since an artist has garnered this much hype before the release of any proper LP. The guy has barely even performed live for god’s sake (though he is the live vocalist for Mount Kimbie). For many, however, the London producer’s three 2010 EPs and forthcoming debut LP have been on repeat for a while, and justly so. With the EPs, he’s covered a lot of electronica ground in a relatively short time: chilling explorations through dubstep rhythms, sound collages, dance hall-infused house, and electro-pop or whatever you want to call it. The fuzzy, hazy, blip-laden textures don’t let you know if it’s time to dance, take a nap on the couch, drink yourself into a coma, or cry yourself to sleep. For good reason, the EPs alone would have been enough to tide people over for a while, and they might have. Then his debut album prematurely leaked all over the interwebs.
While beat work was the primary focus on the EPs, with his debut, Blake’s vocals take center stage atop the curious and intriguing production he’s been toying with. Where Blake barely even used his own vocals on his string of EPs, he propels his voice above the dust, introducing another element to the spooked-out mix: coherent lyrics. As he bellows, anguish and heartbreak drip from .jpg lips, the human heart is filtered through an external hard drive. This is, by most standards, a soul record. One that, while almost entirely digital in nature (even the vocals are fed through digitized effects and sustained by Auto-Tune and enhancers), seeps passion from the production to the computerized pipes. In essence, Blake has done what so many computer-age tinkerers have failed at: He’s created an immensely soulful record using techniques and approaches many might describe as cold, sterile, soul-less, and superficial. Some might say there’s little room for raw passion in the mostly squeaky clean world of digital music, but with his uniquely organic and raw-sounding process, Blake is proof enough that people might have just been doing it wrong up until now.
“Unluck” opens the record with sparse piano, a schizophrenically clicking rhythm section fit with rhythmically placed blown-out static, and digitized organ, chopped up and broken into even more complex rhythms. Here, we get the first of Blake’s vocal styles, the kind in which he samples and mutilates his vocals. They sound patchy, oddly cut, and perfectly offbeat, recalling Burial. With more straightforward singing, a standout among standouts, the powerful “Wilhelm’s Scream” displays Blake’s precision and restraint in production and songcraft. Often, his minimal lyricism consists of phrases repeated so excessively that they become mantras, eventually losing their meaning, only to find them again. At first sung atop quiet and spare production, frozen, echoed industrial tones intermittently ringing out through the hollow space, Blake bleeds onto the track. “I don’t know about my dreams/I don’t know about my dreaming anymore/All that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling,” he continually cries in a low register. Before you know it, the song’s tranquility bursts into a foggy storm of static piano notes, backtracked noise, and washed-out distortion. It’s such a slow and meticulous graduation that it feels like a slap in the face for its sonic trickery. A sort of “Where did that come from?” effect. The same occurs on the lyrically nostalgic “Never Learnt to Share”, which ultimately mutates from a silent killer into a remarkably danceable crunch-murderer. “My brother and my sisters don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them,” Blake regurgitates ad nauseam, introducing a stunning mid-track breakdown to clear the air after about 1,000 repetitions of the line.
Then comes one of the best track pairings in recent memory (a similar effect is found on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s “All of the Lights” duo). “Lindesfarne I & II” find Blake channeling Justin Vernon’s Auto-Tune and vocal layering experimentation on the Kanye-sampled “Woods”. The first of the two is a spare, digitally rasp introduction to the out-of-the box, blossoming rhythms of the second. Though the Vernon comparison is a slight oversimplification, Blake explicitly brought the influence up in an interview with factmag: “A lot of my vocal stuff has been influenced by Joni Mitchell and [Bon Iver’s] Justin Vernon.” If the masses start clumping the two together, Blake has only himself to blame.
Expanding his artistic capabilities to the art of cover, Blake’s reworking of Feist’s “Limit to your Love” is enthralling, if only for showcasing how applicable his sound can be to just about any kind of song. It broods, cries, and secretes its own brokenness through beautiful vocals and hauntingly subtle textures. It’s a cover that feels like a remix fed through just about every sub-genre of reggae-influenced dance music and soul.
A man of remarkable control, Blake can also tone it all down when he needs to. “Give Me My Month” serves as a purging of the digital, a short and gorgeous piano ballad that paves the way for “To Care”, one of the more electro-fueled songs on the record. Its male and female harmonies are warped and spliced, its rhythms fluttering and disorienting.
From here, the album continues to journey through its own world, varying between stark, organic digitization and more straightforward, natural recording. The pacing is impeccable, just the right song tempos and build-ups sequenced in a manner that can compete with any classic album. Slower songs open the air for faster, more cluttered soundscapes. And through it all, the vocals always carry amazingly specific emotion, despite the effects and surrounding husk. There is heartbreak, pain, longing, and love written in every timely sample, every perfectly placed sound, and every full-bodied croon. It’s a gauzy, overflowing mass of emotion, done in a new and inventive manner. James Blake is an essential for anybody interested in witnessing how pop music can and will continue to change, progress, and grow into something new with time.