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Album Review: James Blake ‘James Blake’

I suppose you technically have to call James Blake’s music dubstep. But it’s not; not really. I prefer to think of it as minimalist music. It’s what happens when you strip away everything except a single pulsing bass beat, occasionally a bit of synth, and sparse vocals. It’s an antithesis to modern pop music, to grand arrangements and intricate instrumentation. And, as it turns out, it can be pretty damn powerful.

UK producer-turned-singer-songwriter James Blake had released a series of singles via independent labels before suddenly finding himself in the judgmental headlights of the mainstream when he covered Fesit’s track Limit To Your Love, which is included on this album and received wide commercial airplay and attention. All of a sudden he went from a Pitchfork darling to someone dealing with the burden of commercial expectations for the first time in the leadup to this, his debut album.

Thankfully however, ‘James Blake’ bears no signs of the unusual pressures facing its release. It’s a confident and moving record that is not without its weaknesses however is overwhelmingly a triumph.

Opening track Unluck is actually one of Blake’s most dense songs, with a fierce, clattering synth underpinning and eventually overwhelming his vocals. The juxtaposition between Blake’s silky smooth voice and the abruptness of his backing music is a constant throughout this record, and it serves the album very well, with the most memorable moments coming when the glitchy backing tracks grow to drown out Blake’s vocals, only to fade away as soon as they appeared, leaving only that voice and a sense of what used to be.

The album is in a constant state of flux, with sounds growing and fading away and Blake’s vocals shifting from being twice as loud as anything else to being a barely audible distraction.

This is most evident on The Wilhelm Scream (which is actually a cover of a song by James Blake’s dad, James Litherland), where Blake’s constant lyrics of “All I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling” are gradually submerged underneath pulsing static before emerging to the surface for the conclusion of the song. It’s one of the most powerful moments of the album, but Blake certainly isn’t afraid of using the same trick time and time again.

When you’re only going to write a handful of lyrics for each song and simply repeat them over and over again, you’d better make sure that they’re good lyrics. Thankfully Blake has no problems here- his lyrics are at all times short, sharp, to the point, and hauntingly honest. A case in point is the five-minute track I Never Learnt To Share, which begins with the repeated refrain of “My brother and sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them,” before the distorted synth rises out of the depths and takes over the song with an uncharacteristically strong and powerful beat.

Limit To Your Love, the song that launched Blake into the mainstream, is probably the most accessible track on the album, and it is here that his talent as a producer shines though. His rearrangement of the song is nothing short of spectacular, and the crystal clear piano at the start is in stark contrast to the distortion of much of the rest of the album. It is unmistakably a James Blake track, but it is also somehow slightly different to the rest of the album; less restrained and ever so slightly more dense.

The album concludes with Measurements, one of the least accessible tracks on the album but also one of the best. The choruses with Blake echoing his own vocals multiple times over are utterly mesmerising, at times sounding almost gospel-like. Throughout the whole track you are just waiting for distorted synth to grow slowly in the background, but it never comes. It’s just a clean, sparse and- almost- straightforward song that will stick with you well after the five James Blake’s have finished their last harmonised note.

Yes the album draws pretty heavily on the works of dubstep artists like Portishead, but for me the comparison with Bon Iver’s debut ‘For Emma Forever Ago’ is the more apt one. If Bon Iver stripped away all the crap from folk music, James Blake has done likewise for pop music. In both cases the result is a powerful and visceral album that says so much more with so much less than everything else does.

‘James Blake’ is certainly nowhere near as accessible as ‘For Emma’ however. At times it can be a surprisingly challenging album to listen to, but like all great records it rewards this effort by slowly peeling away its layers and its defenses, revealing very vulnerable and surprisingly beautiful music. For at the same time as it is hauntingly simple, ‘James Blake’ is also deceptively intricate. This is a record that could only ever be made by a producer-turned-singer. The pre-production and post-production sides of the record are so closely entwined that they are one and the same, and the true skill of James Blake is that the seam never shows.

This is a sparse, desolate, minimalist album. If ‘For Emma’ was Wisconsin, this is fucking Antarctica. But there is a quiet and restrained charm to James Blake’s album that grows on you as you make it through the eleven tracks, to the point where, by the time you finish the record, you are well and truly captured in the man’s spell.

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4 Responses to “Album Review: James Blake ‘James Blake’”

  1. Please be careful not to throw around the buzzword of the moment, Dubstep. It’s pretty quickly becoming the abused word to describe anything dancy below 120BPM. This is simply not true. Portishead are as far from Dubstep as Boards Of Canada are to Electro. The proper term here is simply electronica, or downtempo, or even trip hop. Yes, as oldskool a term as house. Dubstep is very specifically, a HALF SPEED house beat. Syncopated beats that draw on hip hop or funk, are definitely NOT dubstep. If anything, they’re closer to Glitch Hop. I’m not trying to tear down your review of this wonderful album, but I’m a huuuuge long-standing listener of electronic acts, everyone from B.Fleischmann to Autechre to Jon Hopkins to Opiuo to Mu, Jamie Lidell to Flying Lotus. It’s essential that in this amazing era where previously underground electronica production is slowly becoming more and more favoured by popular artists, we all recognise the right genres/sub-genres at play here. It’s not all just “Dubstep” and “Electro”. Someone used “Dubstep” to describe a new Radiohead song the other day and I seriously cringed. Here’s an insightful list of sub-genres I urge you to familiarise yourself with (many of them are wonderful!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_electronic_music_genres

    • Thanks for the tip, but genres are all pretty much subjective anyway aren’t they? They’re just useful categorisations at times, and like I said I don’t really think James Blake’s music fits this genre, whereas many other people have said that it does. I don’t really buy into the whole technical specifications of genres, the way I see it they are more a way to describe the overall feel and instrumentation of a record. Regardless, I’ll definitely check out the link.

      • Fair enough. U dont have to get technical with specific genres if u don’t want to. But if that’s what you want to do, then don’t go technical and call it a particular subgenre like dubstep, just keep it broad and call it electronic, which is the father-genre (like Rock is to punk, metal etc) all sub-genres fall under. :) Keep up the great work btw. Love the taste in music and ur current Instagram addiction haha

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