Writing about James Blake’s music seems almost an exercise in futility now. He himself is all too aware of the rapidity with which his popularity has risen; his name touching the lips and pen tips of every other music journalist and radio dj over the past year. Despite the actual scarcity of his releases, I myself fell in and out of admiration of his work before he had even released this, his self-titled debut album.
When I heard ‘Air and the Lack Thereof’, one of his first releases, I went dotty for the strange amalgamation of sounds at play. Blake is not only a talented composer but also, thanks to having studied popular music it seems; well versed in music history (he has mentioned that the music of classical composers, namely J. S. Bach, was a greater influence than that of his contemporaries in writing and recording his first album.) ‘Air…’ managed to push him to the forefront of the ever progressive ‘post-dubstep’ scene whilst simultaneously displaying a singular understanding of musical heritage: its peculiar vocal samples and distorted organ melody reminiscent of the gospel and blues from the American Deep South.
His next big release, a cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’, catapulted the appreciation of his work up a few dozen notches into the commercial echelons of daytime radio and the broadsheet newspapers. I didn’t like that song. It is not a question of selling out; he had only released a handful of tunes, the guy hasn’t even had a chance. No, the combination of indie ballad and bowel-shaking bass just didn’t match the ingenious hybridity of his previous work. Singing and piano, then singing and bass, repeat: it was simple but, for me, awkward rather than effective. I switched off.
His debut has since caused me to look back over my shoulder however. ‘Limit…’ still features, sat smack bang in the middle of the track-list and although I’m still not a fan, it now appears to me as a stepping stone towards the generally more successful and subtler genre-melding at work on this record. Much has been said about the importance of this ‘experimental’ artist breaking into the mainstream yet in truth Blake doesn’t tread entirely new ground and displays a debt to the influence of some decidedly newer composers than Bach, namely Burial and Bon Iver (please don’t sample him, Kanye). Still there is so much that’s good here. The rough, irregular production quality of his trademark clipped vocal samples and fuzzy organ synths makes a welcome return but is now effectively paralleled by the variable vulnerability of his voice on the haunting ‘I Mind’ and ‘Tep and the Logic’. Atmosphere is something Blake has down, no trouble. The album is, as one would expect, clever but surprisingly touching too, just listening to the hugely personal ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ and ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ I feel terrible for having ever criticised him! In truth though, it is this courageous lyrical exposure of his emotional frailties that separates Blake from the rest of the largely instrumental ‘post-dubstep’ scene as an artist worth cherishing in years to come.
So much hype can often be detrimental to an artist’s career. Listening to this album, there are things I love and things I don’t but for a debut that’s not such a bad thing. Blake doesn’t appear interested in making a perfect album, rather in trying new things musically. Regardless of whether or not it always works for the listener, it’s exciting and bodes well for his future work.