Review: James Blake - Overgrown

At the turn of the decade, James Blake's transfigured Post-Dubstep, Soul fusion was touted as somewhat the antithesis to the mechanical trashcan sounds of South London; the indomitable synths of the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that is Burial. 2011's James Blake was an exhibition in passionate electronics - an auto-tuned and brilliant insight into the thoughts of a willing mind - and it was everything fans wanted it to be. Indeed, after a string of stellar EPs, singles, collaborations with the likes of Mount Kimbie, and a certain cover of a Feist song, this twenty-something year old emerged as the single most impressive artist of 2011. The reception to the self-titled debut was a holistic affirmation of this. With 2013's Overgrown, the continuity of the amalgam of sounds conjured by Blake on his debut seems almost essential, so its lack of presence is at once curious but ultimately reassuring.

Lead single Retrograde characterizes Blake's evolution not just as an instrumentalist, but as a vocalist as well; the deep basslines are present, but pushed to the back, both in terms of layering and song structure. At the forefront are his vocals and they are the strongest you'll have heard from him yet but just as intimate and evocative. The bellows are interpersonal and are contrasted with lulls in his voice and a longing for reconciliation, which in turn are contrasted by the blaring, siren call-like bassline towards the back-end of the song. Like The Wilhelm Scream before it, it's the standout and directly analogous to it. The deeply affectionate lyrical themes throughout the album are explained by Blake as something that was missing from the debut:  "I'd say my first album reflected a lack of something. Something missing. I hadn't been in a long-term relationship. I didn't feel like I'd found anyone that I really got or that got me. And that changed making this second record." Blake's relationship - with Theresa Wyman of Warpaint, no less - seems to be the main inspiration, then: "So be the girl you loved / be the girl you loved."

Lyrical inspirations are central to the makeup of the album and for the most part, the inspirations are as triumphant as the musical inspirations that crowned Blake the king of Post-Dubstep in 2011's debut. Blake was originally to be a professional pianist and it's the first thing we hear on title track and opener. In the music video for the track, these spooky pitch black apparitions follow an introspective Blake around, dancing and weaving throughout and conclusively disappearing into Blake - perhaps the materialization of part of Blake's soul, but one thing's for certain: the track and accompanying video are heartwrenching and soulful, an enchanting opener that ebbs and flows in its use of electronics and lays down the groundwork for the dynamic shift in this talented individual's music. 

Something that catches the ear, or rather doesn't, is the lack of heavy vocal manipulation like on the debut. I am Sold is the only song where the technique isn't used sparingly, but there's certainly nothing like the self-titled's Lindisfarne and its Bon Iver resemblance. The airy quality remains throughout, though, and the delivery of some lines is knee-jerkingly brilliant: "But it may be the constellaaaaation / that shows us where we are." and Life Round Here's "Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day" are standouts. The latter's synths quake like the score to a Sci-Fi battle scene, picking out and destroying its targets - in this case, your ears. It sounds like a meaty early SBTRKT tune and it reaffirms Blake's Post-Dubstep roots with strong aplomb. Where Overgrown stumbles is in its efforts to grow out of its intimacy and into something greater than the sum of its parts. 

The record features two guest appearances and one of them is absolutely stellar but the other falls flat on its face. On the first, RZA raps over a subdued Blake beat not dissimilar to that one hypnotic note on Kanye West's Runaway, but this isn't the masterpiece that is. It's a disjointed track with RZA's voice seemingly on its own plane and not threaded to the electronics in the same way that Blake's voice usually is - the constant British references ("I wouldn't trade her smile for a million quid"/"fish and chips with the vinegar") don't help. What isn't surprising is that the whole collaborative process on Take a Fall For Me was done entirely by e-mail. In a much more organic and fitting collaboration, Blake partners with legendary producer and personal favourite Brian Eno on Digital Lion to incorporate a spacey, forward-thinking and trademark synth-laden edge to the customary. It's alarming at times (the horn towards the latter stages is especially frightening) and it grows into Eno's production brilliantly. In contrast to the RZA song, this one was created with Blake and Eno sitting down in Eno's home, listening to records together, building a musical relationship and clicking and it hammers home Blake's ability as an intimate and closely-knit artist. It's one of the highlights as a result.  

In somewhat of a throwback to the Post-Dubstep labels that Blake is often stuck with, Voyeur is a droning, intricate quasi-Burial track, sounding like something off the Kindred EP, delivered with almost as much inscrutable gloss as the mastermind himself. Whether or not Blake's transition into Neo-Soul is successful is indisputable. Overgrown is another example in how to write touching and sincere music, except this time it's done with a hearty serving of Soul and a touch of Dubstep, rather than the reverse. This is an exciting artist in his creative prime, a talent that perhaps won't carry the Post-Dubstep flag, but that's unnecessary. His canny understanding of himself and the things closest to him is James Blake's biggest strength and the use of it is almost unyielding on Overgrown.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

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