James Blake Releases Masterful Debut

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

Early last year, the blogosphere began lighting up with chatter concerning a 20-year-old Londoner named James Blake, whose home-recorded compositions kept finding their way onto British radio.

Via a three-song EP entitled The Bells Sketch, Blake introduced the world to a kind of asexual trip-hop, richly mysterious in character but sparse in construction, like a collaboration between J Dilla and Thom Yorke. Months later, another EP followed, this one entitled CMYK. Saturated with a sample-based soul sensibility and a palpable reverence for 90’s R&B, the EP’s white-hot title track established Blake as 2010’s most promising newcomer. That he managed to put out yet another excellent EP, Klavierwerke, before the year finished only solidified Blake’s potential as a new driving musical force and inflated public anticipation for his self-titled full-length debut.

Describing James Blake’s music poses a bit of a challenge. The first word that comes to mind upon listening to his self-titled debut is “bare,” but reducing his compositions to the realm of Aphex Twin-style minimalism deprives them of their heart. Blake’s beats jerk as indecisively as the dubstep rhythms of his contemporaries, but at such a sedated pace that dancing seems entirely out of the question. His ear for chord structure and melody clearly demonstrates years of training on the piano. His voice, a trembling but soulful tenor in the style of Antony Hegarty, breathes enough personality into his music to liken it to singer-songwriter R&B—so why can’t I write off Blake as another John Legend imitator?

In the end, Blake defines himself most effectively through an inimitable ability to shape and manipulate sound. It takes a certain mastery of computer-based music composition to craft the type of sonic precision that characterizes Blake’s music. Even on the melancholic “Give Me My Month,” a piano ballad stripped of his signature studio styling, the sound remains calculated.

“Unluck” opens with an unnerving muted chord progression, held loosely together by a beat too careless to tap along to. As spurts of noise rattle the listener out of any sense of calm, pitter-pattering cymbals and hand claps introduce Blake’s crackled, cold voice. The Auto-Tune kicks in moments later, wobbling his pipes through another verse and chorus while wispy synths seem to ring at frequencies too high to take comfort in. The song stumbles along with gradual frailty, and even as Blake layers vocal lines and awakens the keyboards, the added weight only heightens the song’s descent into lunacy.

The single “Wilhelm’s Scream” takes its namesake from a Hollywood sound effect and in-joke. It originated from Private Wilhelm, a character in the 1953 Western The Charge at Feather River, whose deathly shriek after getting shot by an arrow has accompanied countless cinematic deaths ever since. At first glance, the title of the song seems out of place on such a haunting slow-burner. However, when Blake sings, “I don’t know about my dreaming any more… I don’t know about my loving any more,” it sounds like a disillusionment with romance—possibly of the cinematic quality. As he croons, “all that I know is I’m falling, falling… might as well be falling,” it seems like we’re no longer hearing Blake’s lament but Wilhelm, eternally doomed to perish time and time again across film history. With its reverberated howls and mounting sense of dread, the song provides the character’s fatal soundtrack.

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon—particularly on “The Wolves (Act I and Act II)” and “Woods”—laid the foundation for Blake’s mechanized masquerade of the vulnerable human voice. But where Vernon bared himself, Blake chooses instead to hide. Even on the Feist cover “Limit To Your Love,” arguably Blake’s most impassioned and unaltered vocal performance, a grinding bass tone rumbles beneath the piano as his voice drifts further and further into the distance. Blake seems insecure about Vernon’s brand of personal revelation, and calls on his bag of synthesized sounds as a constant retort to any lyrical honesty found on the album. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them,” Blake repeats throughout album standout “I Never Learnt To Share,” but his delivery never changes. Instead, he underlines the phrase with evolving lines of synth static that eventually explode into the type of grimy dubstep catharsis that makes us forget whatever he was complaining about before.

James Blake finds its composer cultivating a haphazard relationship between his role as singer-songwriter and reclusive producer. In the process, Blake shapes something not easily forgotten, a masterpiece of grippingly beautiful electronic music.

Standout Tracks: “Wilhelm’s Scream,” “I Never Learnt To Share,” “Limit To Your Love”

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