Some people were born with the innate ability to seduce. Some can do it with their looks, others with words or behavior. In addition to having really good hair, James Blake can seduce with his voice. His lithe, melodic croon entangles perfectly with elegant electronic arrangements a distinct style that gives Blake room to move around as a songwriter. Hes always tweaking and evolving his sound, which makes every release an anticipated occasion for fans of nu-R&B and post-dubstep.
Those electronics put Blake on the map. His 2011 self-titled debut was a jittery 40 minutes of unorthodox beats and rhythmic manipulations. Vocals would come and go at a moment’s notice, bouncing from left channel to right channel. Yet there was an ominous mood and cohesion to the music. The album charted well in almost every country except the United States.
Which brings us to Overgrown, the latest realization of everything Blakes capable of as a songwriter and vocalist. Building off of recent singles and EPs, hes crafted an album of full-on electro R&B. Gone is the glitchy dubstep; the mood and cohesion remain. A press release for Overgrown states that Blake worked with BjÃ¶rk, Drake, and Bon Iver when composing the album and if you listen hard enough, you can hear their ideas being filtered through Blakes own stylings. The eponymous opening track is just the pattering of a minimal beat and that gentle croon. Hes really improved as a singer, hitting high notes and low notes that hes never even attempted before. His words are impressionistic metaphors: If that is how it is / I dont want to be a star / Or a stone on the shore.
Naturally, the simplicity of Overgrown downplays the dubstep seen in Blakes early work. Although not entirely gone, its been reduced to small doses. On Take a Fall For Me, Blake puppeteers a creepy beat for guest emcee RZA. It’s a strange collaboration, but it works (and gives hope to future hip-hop endeavors). Overgrowns only other collab is Digital Lion, which was produced by Brian Eno. During instrumental passages, were treated to an Eno-Blake jam session Eno supplying the ambient chords, Blake the quivering samples and snares. This is followed by the records most disappointing moment, Voyeur. Its the most dance-oriented track here, but it doesnt lead anywhere, aimless compared to Overgrowns more developed songs.
Life Round Here might be Blakes finest composition yet. An ascending/descending piano riff accompanies a drum machine, as Blake gets all 90s R&B. When he sings Part-time love is the life for me, theres a hint of Usher in his delivery.
James Blake may lose some fans with the tamer, more sultry sounds of Overgrown. But hes going to gain a lot more. Without the cut-and-paste dubstep, his music suddenly becomes quite radio friendly (Life Round Here screams FM). Its the ideal sophomore LP: Blake emphasizes and magnifies his finest assets (the croon, the dark romance) for the sake of a better song. Of course, it does help when youre taking lessons from BjÃ¶rk and Bon Iver.
Essential Tracks: Overgrown, Life Round Here, and Digital Lion
Feature artwork by Justin Hopkins: