Tag Archives: James Blake album review

James Blake ‘James Blake’ – Review

9 Feb

It’s hard to think of another artist who has covered so much ground before even releasing their debut album. From his acclaimed  remixes of dub-step pioneers to the sampled based ‘CMYK’ e.p and the piano-centric ‘Klavierwerke’ e.p, James Blake has been consistently interesting and quietly ground breaking. Obviously that means a lot is riding on this debut album and it’s probably bound to disappoint some people who think they know what to expect. If there is one thing I learnt about James Blake from those e.ps it’s to expect the unexpected.

Firstly I was surprised at how song centric the album is; the second third of the record barely features any production wizardry at all and there is an abundance of humable tunes. ‘Give Me My Month’, ‘To Care Like You’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ are short piano pieces that will make or break the album for many people. Personally, they are the album’s highlights but to many dub-step purists who enjoyed the ‘CMYK’ e.p these tracks may come as an unwelcome change of direction. ‘I Mind’ comes the closest to sounding like the James Blake of old but that song aside there really isn’t that much here that could be considered dub-step. Still, the genre’s influence is all over the album, from the cut and paste editing to the click track beats, James Blake knows where he’s coming from but he knows where he’s going as well.

Blake brilliantly captured a sense of tension and paranoia on the song ‘CMYK’ through his blending of high pitched r&b samples and jittery beats. Here he tries to re-capture that tension on ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ by using his own vocals as the sample. It works to an extent; the song basically revolves around the line ‘My Brother and my sister don’t talk to me and I don’t blame them’ which is sung by Blake with resonating sincerity and heartbreak. Over the course of the song the line gets diced, distorted, and played with in every which way so that at one point there are several Blakes (some electronically manipulated, some authentic) all fighting with each other in a battle between the real and the unreal,the future and the past etc. Your allowed to concentrate on these ideas because basically the song just repeats the same motif for four minutes.

As I say, it works to an extent. Whilst I can see the merits in him playing with the words until all possible understandings and interpretations have been dissected from them, ultimately I think a little more depth would have been beneficial. What has the singer done for his brother and sister not to talk to him? Why doesn’t he blame them? These are questions Blake deliberately leaves unanswered, and I don’t have a problem with that, but I do wonder if the song is just underdeveloped rather than understated. ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, Measurements’ and ‘Unlock’ – actually most of the album – works in the same way, positive repetition is the most notable trait of ‘James Blake’. I think the extent to which you get on board with Blake’s lyrical approach will be determined by whether you believe that less is more and whether you think he is being restrained and concise or just a bit lazy.

‘Lindisfarne’ is more traditionally structured lyrically, as is the album highlight ‘Limit To Your Love’ which is also the most tuneful thing on here. I was never a big fan of the song when I first heard it, the white boy soul and minimal arrangement was a bit too MOR for me, but I like it more and more every time I hear it. Heard through headphones, the rippling bass and heartfelt vocals really jump out whilst the silence inbetween the verse and chorus sounds even more chilling and unexpected in the album’s context.

James Blake has tried to make a sort of  ‘singer-songwriter’ album; a record that is powerful and emotionally resenting in the same way as, for example, Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma Forever Ago’. However, it’s too slight and delicate to work on those terms. It’s also too considered; Bon Iver’s album was so effecting because of the brutal and direct honesty, it was just him and his guitar, whereas you get the impression that Blake has spent months crafting and shaping this album – it kind of sounds simple but it also sounds like he’s spent an awful lot of time and effort making it sound simple. Instead ‘James Blake’ works most successfully as a late night, post-club, mood album; one that is moving yet slightly disarming at the same time. This is a dreamy, ambiguous, haunting, and almost futuristic record that takes the key traits of the singer songwriter style and places them in a new context.

We have now established that not only is James Blake an accomplished DJ, producer, pianist and singer but he’s also a pretty snappy tunesmith as well. This album is a slightly confused amalgamation of all these things, which means it’s a great album but a sporadically great one. ‘How full on to watch you grow’ he sings at one point – James Blake is an artist who has grown up musically in public over the past couple of years and this album suggests he still has a lot of growing to do. He is one of the brightest young talents to emerge in recent years and I have no doubt he will grow into a spectacular musician.