James Blake ‘Overgrown’ – Review

28 Apr

 

 

Second album syndrome is a serious condition. Symptoms include a lack of focus, a reliance on familiar sounds alongside a rash grab bag approach to new ones, rushed production, and songs about touring. It mainly affects rock groups but, as James Blake fans have just discovered, it can blight the music of cool, post-dub step mopes as well.

But before we get to the negative, let’s focus on the positive. I was a big fan of Blake’s 2010 self titled debut; it was smart, nuanced, emotive and brushed with innovative production details. I was an even bigger fan of his numerous e.ps, which often bypassed his mellow tendencies and aimed straight for the hips. The new album finds an interesting home somewhere between these two points. ‘Voyeur’ for example begins like many songs on the debut but soon spirals into a full on dance banger, with raving synths and pounding beats. ‘Digital Lion’ starts off as a chugging, directionless dirge but breaks down into a proper Industrial House song – the dust is practically shivered off by a throbbing beat straight from some German warehouse. Best of all is ‘Retrograde’: here the dance bit doesn’t sound welded on at the end, it’s a natural fit for Blake, and it’s the only time on the album he’s truly successful when playing with a new style. The chords are pure gospel, the treatment of them is totally 21st century.

The title track reminds you instantly what Blake does best. His voice flickers like a candle, but its unreliability and vulnerability is used as a strength. This is the most emotionally naked we’ve seen him, as he ponders his position in the public sphere. ‘I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore’ he decides, settling on something solid and permanent rather than a bright, abstract and ultimately unreachable object. Elsewhere he’s concerned with distance, particularly the distance between him and his girlfriend. ‘Part time love is the life we lead’ he moans, referencing the lack of time they have to spend together, whilst elsewhere he sings ‘We waited too long, we’re back to square one.’

Sometimes Blake has a new tendency to be vague and indecisive which makes many of these songs impenetrable. it’s a massive shame as the biggest strength of the debut was definitely his ability to smack you in the face with a blunt and brilliant lyric and then repeat it until you had it spinning in your head. ‘The Wilhelm’s Scream’ was made up entirely of the line ‘I don’t know about my dreaming anymore / all that I know is I’m falling, falling, falling – might as well fall.’ Another song (I forget which) revolved simply around the line ‘My brother and my sister don’t speak to me – I don’t blame them’. Ok, this wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adored the simplicity and bravery of these songs. Strangely, many of the tracks on ‘Overgrown’, whilst being longer and more detailed, actually feel less complete and less nuanced. He’ll sing a verse, then a chorus, then just repeat it in the same bland way adding nothing to the delivery.

Easily though, the biggest flaw of the album is the lack of memorable tunes. His debut worked well as a cohesive whole but it also had a handful of stand-alone classics like ‘Lindisfarne’ and ‘Limit to Your Love’. I’ve listened to the new album countless times now but the only song I would be able to hum is ‘Retrograde’. The other tracks, even the ones I like, fail to leave a lasting impression. I hate to say it but I can now see where the critics (who have been strong in number since the beginning) are coming from. Blake is just too damn miserable for his own good, which has resulted in a lethargic, dreary and underwhelming sophomore album. The likes of ‘DLM’ and ‘To the Last’ just melt into the background which is ultimately where the whole album belongs.

On the cover of his debut, Blake (shot in a blue light) appeared out of focus in a bewildering, inviting way – as if a strange fog had taken over his body and melted his features. On the new album the blue fog is still there in the background but Blake is standing in the foreground with a pretentious, artsy, smug look on his face, arms crossed. It’s ironic then that after stepping out of the fog Blake should suddenly sound considerably more out of focus. Lets hope it’s only second album syndrome and not something more career threatening.

5.5/10

 

 

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