by Rob Wilson
When a relatively successful singer-songwriter – one which has previously stated his desires to remain unique when compared to his electronic/dubstep contemporaries – tries to convince you that they “don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore,” the paradoxical nature of the statement – which implies a yearning for settling in with predetermined surroundings – hits you with a slightly disorienting aura of confusion. But his quest to seek out new ways to fuse several genres together within the rather large and fluid boundaries of electronic music has seen him receive formidable praise and develop an ever-growing fanbase. As well as that, Blake – in his four years as a professional recording artist – has evolved rapidly from a faceless, voiceless electronic producer, to one of the warmest, yet most fragile and shy vocalists and singer-songwriters of the current crop. In keeping with the centrepiece for the cover of Blake’s debut – Blake’s face a blur – his true identity as a persona, rather than a musician, was slightly buried underneath his brand of brittle, piano-driven electronic music. But from staring at the cover of Blake’s latest release, Overgrown, the immediate guess is that he’s arrived at a point where he can expose himself physically, as well as emotionally. James is frozen in the centre of a long angle shot as he walks towards the camera through snow, his facial expression one of defiance.
Instrumentally, title-track ‘Overgrown’ commences as a warm-up – Blake hums himself, and his piano, in to tune – before a down-tempo, crackling beat creates icy textures and ominous clouds. From here, ‘Overgrown’ evolves majestically into a 5-minute epic involving more of Blake’s delicate approaches to layering tracks, showing that he still has the incredible knack of paying close attention to the little things, such as when and where to place icy strings. And from there Blake doesn’t hold back on telling painful stories that would break the heart of the brightest of people if told bluntly without his penchant for creative metaphors: ‘I Am Sold’ compares a relationship, one which seems to finish as soon as it starts, to a quick flash of green light in the sky to throw beauty into a beastly situation. Its steady, persistent beat gives a chilling effect of pouring sand, reminiscent of Blake’s previous work as a specifically instrumental musician. ‘Life Round Here’ explores various degrees of disappointment and calls on images of broken expectancy. Poetic similes are explored (“Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day”) as the instrumentals crescendo, before shrinking back underneath Blake’s delicate touch and fragile vocals.
Blake’s voice and lyrical themes merge effortlessly, as though they were soulmates waiting for an eternity to find each other until he opened his mouth – his broken, sensitive voice pairs up splendidly with lyrical poetry of broken hearts, underwhelming experiences and a lack of emotional well-being. Themes such as this have been explored before thousands of times over in the most unique and enjoyable ways possible, but it’s within these realms that clichés are often waiting to hold an artist down by tempting them to simply write down their feelings about “heartbreak” and lost love with the care and subtlety of a clumsy elephant – rather than dress them up in creative metaphors and drape them in lashings of brutal imagery. However, not all clichés are cheap – take James Blake’s arguably biggest gig to date, for example: “Take a Fall for Me”, featuring the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.
To find a rapper on a James Blake album seemed like a slightly risky move when first announced. This decision immediately had even his strongest fans pressing their fists gently into their gritted teeth in uncertainty and apprehension, while others took it for what it was – an experiment; more evidence that James Blake is constantly swimming in more colourful waters when searching for ideas. More of Blake’s almost trademark, careful, melancholic instrumentation sets up RZA to tell the story of a heartbroken man watching the love his life marry someone else. The aching picture painted throughout the verses on this track is one that has been painted before with several different brushes, but unique, extravagant metaphors, which the first half of Overgrown has in abundance, keep it from suffering from being too corny for its own good, even as RZA’s confession drags its nails across the threadbare heart-strings.
Immediately following RZA’s guest spot is album standout – and lead single – ‘Retrograde’, which again shows James Blake’s steady growth as a songwriter with a hugely R & B influenced electronic ballad. Again, relationships feature prominently as the key lyrical theme – but the inspiration for this track comes from a much more personal and intimate perspective, rather than viewpoint that has been built slowly and given fictional character. Instrumentally, a hummed sample – that fractures and splits in the way of a teenage boy’s voice as Blake pushes his falsetto ranges – soon becomes completely buried under swelling synths that explode with tension, danger and immediacy as James Blake vocally rises to his most passionate and declarative peak to date as he screams “Suddenly, I’m hit / is this darkness or the dawn?” Blake continues to remain well within the realm of clear and concise ideas with the Brian Eno produced ‘Digital Lion’, which shows Blake and Eno handling textural depth, timbral experimentation and yet more vocal creativity from a musician that has only recently begun using a microphone.
But as ‘Digital Lion’ leaves, ‘Voyeur’ arrives in the shape of his most ‘dancefloor-inspired’ track to date. As well as reaching further into relatively undisturbed waters, Blake keeps his live set firmly in mind as a strong, consistent dance beat thuds beneath arpeggiated journeys up and down the keyboard as more alarming synths invade proceedings – but ‘Voyeur’ seems to run out of ideas and meanders towards a fairly anti-climactic finish while the short vocal sample begins to lose touch with the steady beat. The production on the vocal sample that persists throughout the duration of the track (“And her mind was on me”) also feels incredibly dry, and feels out of place on an album full of mostly expert production. Staying with weak spots, ‘DLM’ – a lonely, almost drunken piano ballad – unfortunately calls back to some of the less direct and sketchy ideas that lessened the quality of his debut. Although this track again displays James Blake as an emotional vocalist, the chords that prop the track up slightly don’t maintain the same level of interest as the track moves along a particularly flat, uninteresting instrumental section where Blake is usually so detailed and experimental in the process of inventing.
But in saying that, Overgrown was inches away from blowing me off my feet completely. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Blake explained that he looks back on his debut as “a fractured diary with no direction and absolutely no central idea” but, as a fan of James Blake, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear what commendable work he can produce when his ideas are mostly clearly delivered, carefully selected and firmly driven. His evolution from an entirely voiceless electronic producer to a careful, meticulous singer-songwriter, that has an exceptional ability to blend his previous influences and turn himself into a hybrid of all that has come before, makes Overgrown increasingly enjoyable as the amount of full run-through listens increase. Blake’s growth as an artist away from the previously mentioned brittle, sketchy electronic ideas towards more accessible, fully formed pop songs – laced with R & B and rap influences – make his palate as a musician much broader. When you consider that his earliest work and his latest releases still reward each listener with the presence of his steady hand taking control of it all – despite the huge range in variety of styles – you could take it as a sign that Blake’s “stone on the shore” is in fact growing in size, rather than being broken down by each stroke of the gentle tide in the rather busy and saturated world of 21st century electronic music.