James Blake is not for the impatient listener. As evidenced on his self-titled debut, released digitally on iTunes last month, his music takes a while to sift through. It’s worth sitting with for a while, contemplating on what exactly music has become in today’s day and age. Forty years ago, would Blake’s hauntingly introspective and eerily simple songs have been considered a smash, as they have so been embraced in the past several weeks?
It is first important to dissect the sound of Blake’s debut album, a stunning and magnificent piece of work that will surely make its way to the top of countless “Best of 2011” lists come December. It is quite unlike anything that has ever been heard in recent history. Surely bits and pieces could be attributed to different influences (a bit of Radiohead, blended with some hints of dubstep, one could say). Blake’s point, however, is to defy and transcend genres, which he does with overwhelming success.
On the album’s first single, “The Wilhelm Scream,” Blake layers his soulful voice on top of dripping echoes, a subdued beat, and a barely there synthesizer, all of which work to emphasize the insecurities that the song so beautifully describes. It is slow, while always teetering over the precipice of a quicker paced dance track.
With “I Never Learnt to Share,” Blake works wonders with only his voice, crooning about how “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them” in three different keys as a neo-soul synthesizer spirals aimlessly in the background. This continues for two minutes until a drum beat kicks in, the likes of which would usually signal a new verse perhaps, but Blake likes to keep his listeners transfixed, and continues to repeat the same lines over and over until the synthesizer takes over completely in madcap fashion. It works perfectly, drilling the man’s numerous moments of doubt and self-pity without ever divulging any inner details.
That isn’t to say that James Blake is all grist and no meat, however, as the singer gets to the core of his message on the wonderful side by side tracks, “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II.” The mesmerizing tracks compliment each other perfectly, demonstrating the young Brit’s ability to craft a cohesive album in today’s single obsessed world. The first song is as acoustic as they come on Blake’s album, a dizzyingly autotuned track that, once again, only features his vocals. Backing music kicks in on “II,” masterfully comparing a long forgotten battle to his current fears.
A while later, on “I Mind,” Blake emphasizes the magnitude of an insurmountable obstacle with copious amounts of static and dazzlingly warped vocals, to the point that he manages to completely blend his voice with the very synthesizer that controls the melody.
One of the album’s most entrancing songs is “Limit to Your Love,” a cover of Feist’s hit that Blake dissects and completely rearranges to fit his stylistic intentions. It is a masterpiece, one of the best cover songs to see the light of day in eons. One of the few songs on the album that showcases Blake’s voice in all its soulful purity, “Limit” wraps the listener up with its poignant message while managing to retain all of the singer’s trademark repetitions.
So just what is it about Blake that makes his album worth listening to? Upon hearing any one of his songs, it is almost instantly possible to realize the significance of the music. It is the first of a new genre, many critics proclaim, a so-called “post dubstep” that adeptly encompasses the best aspects of a number of genres and spits out a fascinating work of art. It is at times heavily romantic. At others times Blake retreats rapidly from any musings of love, reverting to a paranoid empty space that he fills with his most inner thoughts. It is no wonder, than, that the album cover is a snapshot of Blake in motion, making it entirely impossible to discern what expressions his face might betray.