Overgrown, Not Overblown: How James Blake Fulfilled His Potential

The former post-dubstepper has just returned with his second album, and it's a massive improvement on the dithery beats of his debut...
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The former post-dubstepper has just returned with his second album, and it's a massive improvement on the dithery beats of his debut...

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James Blake was, probably rightly, heralded as one to watch in 2011. His first album arrived early in that year, but its excessive promptness was perhaps not the only reason for its omission from the retrospective best-of lists. The debut had a kind of insufficiently elaborated feel. The song structures were dark alleys and even dead ends. While the production was rendered with all the authenticity of true talent, the overall effect was of an artist with something on the tip of his tongue, never finding the means to articulate what he was really getting at.

'The Wilhelm Scream', for example, is full of meticulous details: tasteful reverb; treated vocals, permutating kit sounds, and a ranging, slightly complicated lead melody. But what do all these nice little ideas add up to? What is their sum? Neither an interesting song, nor an exploratory sound experiment. In other words: It is a failure. And the first album is littered with disappointing near-misses and also-rans akin to it. The first thing to know about his follow up, then, is that does not disappoint.

Blake's most coherent solo single and first Overgrown discharge, 'Retrograde' features Blake's most indebtedly soul-flavoured vocal cadence yet, and yet this debt is used to redeem one of his boldest performances. The last time his voice was this earnestly exposed was on the insufficiently distinguished cover 'Limit To Your Love', where the words were not his own. The lyrics here are almost as declarative as their delivery: “I’ll wait, so show me why you’re strong, Ignore everybody else, We’re alone now.” He's not pleading with the girl at the centre of the song, he's demanding something of her. It's characteristic of the shift in confidence the album represents. The shift is: up a gear.

'Take A Fall For Me' finds RZA rather generously contributing a rap most consistent with its surroundings, appropriating such colloquialisms as “Million quid” and “Fish and chips (with vinegar)”. Apparently he's an admirer. We gathered. Certainly the respect is a two way mirror, and it may not be overstating the case to say a certain Wu-Tang flavour haunts the sour opening chords, and inhabits the weird vocal sample which blindsides the mix frequently. An oddball highpoint.

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For a while it wasn't clear that Blake was going to become an Album Artist. He released a stream of material without any obvious organisational theme in 2011, and the debut album itself seemed remarkably not-mulled-over. But here we find him with a firm handle on the prerequisites of albumness. Standing back to back, 'Digital Lion' and 'Voyeur' are nice representative examples of  the many very fine album tracks here. By remodulating a few simple themes in consistently progressive and interesting ways, and incorporating a range of textures, the freshness never fades. The palette is expanded, the bud has opened, and the colours are vibrant and varied.

One of the problems with a  majority of Blake's more vocals-orientated work in the past is that the songs never became anything. The lyrics are without nuance, the melodies do not develop, the production, while diverting, never quite engages with the other elements of the songs. Nothing becomes anything. This fragmented, nothingy quality is not fully escaped on this latest work, either. Sections of music don't hang together, things don't gel, there are awkward lulls in quality where Blake doesn't know quite what to say, or perhaps how to say it. I think this may be a function of the audible (and explicitly stated) ambition which used to be as much his enemy as his ally. He's managed to much better master his talents on this outing, but still it gets the better (worse) of him at times.

On the album's curtain call 'Our Love Comes Back' a mood of delicate, finely balanced serenity is established with the gentle popping loops and record hiss which hang over the track. After delivering a few scant lyrics the thing develops into a wordless chordy melancholy, before Blake finds the nerve to essentially interrupt himself and fall back into the track's former smallness, where harmonised, musing “hhmmmmms” carry us to the finish. It's a superbly confident take.

There's a blurred line between singer-songwriter and electronic artist which Blake straddles, and it's still not clear yet whether he's going to successfully to carve out this niche for himself or not. However, Overgrown is evidence in his favour. He's fused his more experimental tendencies with his artistic sense in a way which wasn't necessarily predestined. Whereas previous releases have felt like glimpses into the workshop of a developing talent, this new album feels more like an official presentation; he's coming to us, rather than making us go to him. It's accession to the pleasure principle of pop music.

Overgrown: I'd disagree with precisely half of that title.