Runner-up of the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, runner-up of the BRIT’s Critics’ Choice Award, winner of single of the year at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Winners Awards. Not bad for a boy of James Blake’s tender years.
It is already plain to see the amount of mainstream fascination with James’ work, which for somebody who creates such experimental music is a brilliant achievement in itself. To have been burdened by such weighty expectations can all too often prove more than many hyped musicians are capable of dealing with so early on in their fledgling careers. Yet, in this, James Blake’s self-titled debut album; He may have, quite incredibly, just made all the promise worthwhile.
After releasing four EP’s over the course of 2009/10, Blake has spent the most part of his time developing from the choppy dubstep/electronica of previous single CMYK to his more post-dubsteppy ambient-electronic sound. Put quite simply, James Blake’s sound is very difficult to pigeonhole.
Opener ‘Unluck’ is the perfect appetiser of what is to come from the rest of the album. Its off-kilter clicks and distorted rhythm almost battles against the unsettling fragility of Blake’s auto-tuned vocal. In this initial three minutes of the record, you are made fully aware that this is quite unlike anything the mainstream masses will have previously come across.
Following on from this is the second single from the album; ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. This track is one of the most simple and direct tracks on the record. James’ soulful vocal drifts along rather discreetly over the slow minimal gospel/blues sound before bursting into a jarring haze of overwhelming static. One thing is for sure, you will never get the straightforward approach from James Blake’s work which, while many may find it incredibly frustrating, for others it can be an exceedingly fruitful approach to production.
Beginning a capella, ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ shows the impressive soulful qualities of Blake’s frail voice and develops into a multi-layered harmony of vocal reminiscent of a contemporary gospel. As Blake tells of his dysfunctional family life, synths and kick-drums build progressively before resulting in a cocktail of electronica and bass more evocative of his previous EP’s.
Next come ‘Lindisfarne I’ and ‘Lindisfarne II’. The synthesised vocals almost dehumanises Blake’s voice. Providing an eerie sense of emotion that is both intriguing yet uncomfortable not dissimilar to Ultravox’s ‘Just for a Moment’. In the second of the two songs, the ambient tranquillity of the acoustic guitar highlights that Blake is willing to experiment with a wide range of styles to perfect his sound.
It would be a brave move for any artist to incorporate silence into their music, but for an artist as premature as James Blake, it is a hugely uncertain gamble. However, with his first single from the album; a cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’ he has proved silence can be as powerful as any stirring vocal performance. Its heavy-handed piano jabs stop and start abruptly and the dark undertones of bass are brilliantly captivating. However overplayed this track may have been, it is without doubt a fantastic piece of music.
‘Give me my Mouth’ is possibly the most stripped down and straightforward of songs. However, because this is just a simple piano ballad you can’t help but feel that up against the captivating sounds of other tracks that it passes by without making very much of an impact, which is a shame because it is lyrically sound, and with a different approach in terms of production it could possibly have a been a very interesting track.
‘To Care (Like You)” carries on the gospel vocal style of previous and once again places it over a stuttering electronic beat. Although it may sound like a repetition of previous songs, its very impressive how fresh and different each track sounds.
“Why Don’t You Call Me” is the shortest song on the record at 1:34. On first listen, it could seem like just a mere filler track. However, it is a brilliantly crafted example of just what James Blake as an artist stands for. It begins with just James and a piano but about halfway through, the vocal is distorted and the piano is chopped and screwed and as a result creates a cacophony of sounds that are surprisingly beautiful to the ear. This here, the ability to completely reverse the script of a straightforward ballad and turn it into something entirely new and exciting is the magic of James Blake.
“I Mind” is one of the more upbeat of James Blake’s tracks and the vocal loops and nauseous synths drift along pleasantly into the final track on James Blake’s debut effort; “Measurements”. And if you allow me to be so opinionated, it is a fantastically remarkable end to the album. Blake’s voice is quite spectacular, the croaky soul resonant throughout the album comes to the forefront brilliantly here. It is as minimal and as ambient as anything else on the record and brings it to a very satisfying end.
This record is one that has a time and a place to be played. It is not a party album; infact it’s not particularly a social album. But played to a quiet audience, eyes closed and enjoying the music and its enchantment is hard to argue with. James Blake has created a marvellously modern piece of music that, given that he is just 21, should hopefully mean that he and his music will continue to grow and develop with the ever-changing musical landscape.
Download: ‘Limit to Your Love’ ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ ‘Measurements’