You would be forgiven for being skeptical of James Blake. After all, he received a massive amount of hype last year for his three EPs that “took dubstep in a new direction” and “broke genre conventions” and “used silence brilliantly.” Like many listeners, I enjoyed his 2010 output immensely, but it’s understandable that some people would be put off by his rhythmic abstraction and use of 9’0s R&B samples—the latter of which has been done nearly to death by everyone from Salem to How To Dress Well. The big question many had about Blake by the end of last year was: Sure, he’s a great producer, but can he write songs?
His self-titled LP, to be formally released on February 7, answers that quesiton with a resounding “yes.” As evidenced by his cover of Feist’s 2007 “Limit To Your Love,” Blake is much more interested in pop songcraft than his previous releases let on. The 11 tracks on this record aren’t just genre exercises; they’ve got hooks and verses and intelligible vocals and everything!
“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them, but I don’t blame them,” he repeats on “I Never Learnt To Share,” one of several tracks that showcase his surprisingly soulful singing voice. In a way, he reminds of Rick Astley; looking at him, you’d never expect to hear such a rich, powerful voice. “Why Don’t You Call Me,” meanwhile, is a brief piano ditty that finds Blake lamenting his romantic failings much like Kanye West did on “Blame Game.” “Why don’t you call me what we both know I am,” he laments, over and over, his voice shifting wildly thanks to a smart use of a vocoder.
There’s no rhythm on the track; this is a ballad. And it’s not the only one. “Give Me My Month” is gorgeous, gentle, and proves that Blake need not rely on snappy rhythms to drive his songs.
Blake expands not just the structure of his songs but also their sound. While “Lindesfarne I” is an Autotuned acapella song in the vein of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” “Lindesfarne II” is driven by an acoustic guitar and a simple backing beat. “Measurements,” the album’s closing track, drapes itself in mysterious tape hiss and features only a layered vocal track and a bass. True, it doesn’t follow the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop song structure, but the refrains here are recognizable and traceable.
That’s not to say that Blake has abandoned the production techniques that made his earlier work such a success. The album’s first two tracks, “Unluck” and “The Wilhelm Scream,” both start off slow as molasses but intensify as they progress, never losing their groove but climaxing more danceable percussion. And while his vocals are spotlighted more than ever before, many of the harmonic shifts and computerized embellishments he applies to them were also found on last year’s Klavierwerke EP.
James Blake could never be considered a one-trick pony. But with the release of this full-length, he proves himself more versatile—and more human—than ever before.
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