James Blake’s self-titled debut LP was a stripped down, skeletal exploration of human emotion; a scrapbook of thoughts and feelings where the fractured snare taps and sporadic bass notes served as little more than nods of agreement with Blake’s soulful rhetoric. Despite requiring a certain degree of patience to fully appreciate, It was an ambitious and rewarding album, appealing to fans of electronic, indie and soul music alike. The success of that record pushed the young London-based producer into the spotlight and earned him a Mercury Prize nomination in the process, but, in the two years since that release, Blake has moved on.
In order to do this, some of the hypnotic tension born from having a collection of tracks with similar styles and tempos has been sacrificed. In many ways, Overgrown is a much less cohesive record than Blake’s debut, but what it may lack in continuity is made up through diversity and a willingness to experiment. Before, his tracks felt like introverted thought processes, closely tethered by the minimalist nature of the music. Now, they feel like fully fledged songs; more developed in their direction and purpose. It almost feels as though Blake is now sharing, rather than reflecting.
Much of this is down to the density of the music, no doubt aided by the collaboration with Brian Eno, known for his special ability to fill track space without actually filling it. There are more samples, percussion rattles and synthesizer melodies at work here, each falling like a hammer on iron, forging this new, dynamic sound that Blake has developed. Different tempos and styles are explored on an almost track by track basis, sometimes disconcertingly so, and even in the moments of familiar refrain, such as on the tranquil ‘DLM’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’, it only ever feels temporary. Fleeting, solemn tributes to a previous identity.
Perhaps Blake’s biggest experiment is the bizarrely unsettling ‘Take A Fall For Me’, a dark concoction of wiry vocal layers featuring a slightly offbeat rapped verse by RZA. It’s a love story, like most of Blake’s work, but it walks a tight line between edgy and reckless. Its juxtaposition between the catchy, synth-led ‘Life Round Here’ and warm, swirling textures of ‘Retrograde’ is also strange, but perhaps the turbulent mood it creates is intentional given Blake’s gift for marrying sound with feeling. Even if I’m giving it too much credit, the songs’ inclusion is testament to the lengths Blake will go to shed his musical skin and push his own artistic boundaries.
Despite these changes in sonic landscape, Blake’s distinctive, cracked voice and natural ability to use it to stir the tangible nuances of emotion shine as bright as ever, and remain the beating heart of his material. Soaring and at times angelic, its a voice which never assumes, but merely narrates. That unique gospel signature, joined by careful layering of more traditional soul and r’n’b vocal styles, adds up to become a wholesome, ethereal guiding light. The resigned, repetitious delivery of ‘If only, if only’ on ‘To The Last’ is particularly haunting, and typical of Blake’s ability to make you empathize so readily.
James Blake has come a long way from those humble beginnings as a bedroom dubstep artist, and at its best, Overgrown is an excellent record, stirring and resonant in equal measure. It is also a turbulent listen, overflowing with thoughts and new ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the album as a whole. But, by the end, every twitch of happiness, sadness, hope, dismay, peace and ultimately love is explored, both lyrically, and perhaps for the first time in his career, sonically. It’s an album simply dictated by the power of feeling, or as Blake himself explains, ‘a beautiful person to write about, to be excited about, and to be sad to be missing’.
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