James Blake’s self-titled debut is far from being a typical summer album. Then again, his music hardly qualifies as typical no matter how one looks at it. It was also released in February.
Since the LP’s release however, Blake has completed a modest first tour of the United States (including festivals like SXSW in Austin, TX), had his album shortlisted for the UK Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, and grown from relative obscurity to a sensation in some circles. The album follows a series of well-received, yet musically distinct EPs—ranging from noisy to ambient and quiet, with a pinch of R&B—recorded during Blake’s last year as a music student in London, winning him early attention on select European airwaves and alternative music websites on both sides of the Atlantic.
The beauty of 2011’s “James Blake” is that it ventures into sparsely explored musical territory and, as a whole, sounds very little like anything we have heard before. Coming from a background of production in dubstep and related genres of electronic music, Blake’s healthy use of electronic clicks and pops, sputtering drums, echoes, sub-bass, and sampling (usually of his own voice) is apparent from the start. The opening track “Unluck” evokes hints of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo electronic release “The Eraser,” or moments from Radiohead’s own revolutionary and experimental “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” from the early 2000s. Before anyone gets scared though, James Blake’s employment of electronic sounds is surely among some of the most calculated and tastefully subtle of such uses, in contrast to the often violent and aggressive 8-Bit Nintendo noises of acts like Crystal Castles or Sweden’s The Knife.
Blake’s skill and artfulness becomes especially apparent when the rich and textured synths creep into the mix, accompanied by Blake’s soulful and occasionally warped vocals, singing concisely and with conviction, with a degree of lyrical introspection that most electronic artists rarely reach. This distinction from its musical roots has prompted some music journalists to consider the style of “James Blake” so significantly divergent as to refer to it as “post-dubstep,” a genre that didn’t exist until this year.
“James Blake” is at once dynamic and minimalist. Tracks like single “The Wilhelm Scream” begin with tactful drum beats and understated synths, onto which Blake sings variations of the same melodic verse. The sounds behind the vocals then gradually intensify, much like in “I Never Learnt to Share,” which Blake sustains on two short lines of lyric, brooding that “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them.” By the end of the track, the formerly soothing musical background has grown to a full-out, thick and noise-driven climax.
The more narrative “Lindisfarne I” features only Blake’s vocals, fed through a vocoder, followed by a more melodic “Lindisfarne II,” which begs comparisons to the crooning falsetto of Bon Iver, on 2008’s “For Emma, Forever Ago.” The Feist cover “Limit to Your Love” is probably the album’s most immediately approachable song, stripped down to piano and Blake’s raw, British-nuanced vocals. Notable here is the song’s delicate use of silence and minimalistic reverberations, building tension and anticipation in the middle of the track.
“Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” are two of the most tender and personal moments on the album, featuring vulnerable lyrics from a fragile voice, accompanied by bare piano chords, giving the tracks more of a singer-songwriter sound than others. “To Care (Like You),” and “I Mind” bring variety to the album with R&B-inspired hooks, rousing beats, moments of soul, and even choral music, as on the relaxed album-closer “Measurements.”
While it might not get guests dancing at the next wild dance party you attend, there are few albums more potent and cathartic for when you do come home alone at 3 a.m. and collapse on the couch to calm those last jitters of dancing and ponder your night’s successes and failures. “James Blake” is a collection of tender and unquestionably unique songs that holds the potential of becoming a modern classic.
(Martin Lukk is a Staff Writer for the The Wittenberg Torch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)