James Blake – “A Case of You”
Welcome to the world of modern music, where you can watch artists evolve in real time. No more waiting for the next album to hear what your favorite band is working on. No more waiting for that UK vinyl to come stateside. We’re given direct access – sometimes too much access – to the comings and goings of what we’re listening to. Few artists understand and embrace this paradigm shift like James Blake.
Blake built his base on EPs – The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke, all released in 2010 – utilizing the short, digestible format to introduce and tweak what is now considered his signature sound: Minimalist post-dubstep with an ear for bass and a propensity for using female vocal samples. In 2011, his own vocals had their coming out party on his stunning full-length debut, as Blake strayed a bit further toward the songwriter realm.
Never one to stand still, Blake described his creative process (and the resulting records) to Pitchfork as constant exploration. “When I was actually writing, I would go and do four or five or six tracks that all sounded the same to me. And out of that creative spurt comes an EP. But, by the end of those six tracks, I’d think, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to write something else because this method is boring me.’ So I move on.”
James Blake has moved on. Enough Thunder, Blake’s latest EP, continues his movement along the singer/producer spectrum, dominated by piano and Blake’s less-adorned-than-usual voice. “A Case Of You” and the EP’s title track are the starkest examples, simple recordings of Blake at his piano without the usual studio ornamentation found on earlier releases. Though the songs, and much of the album, take a stripped down approach, they are far from stagnant or bare; as he illustrated on his debut, Blake has an ear for tension, release, and the silence in between, and he employs them generously. Even on the live take of “A Case Of You,” he meticulously controls the ebb and flow of both voice and keys, taking Joni Mitchell’s original and adding a pulsing, brooding feel.
Not all tracks on Enough Thunder are similarly exposed. “Fall Creek Boys Choir” features vocals from Justin Vernon – an artist who, like Blake, is celebrated by many but pilloried by some – and effects are judiciously applied. The layered tune exposes the emotional distance of Blake’s vocals in comparison to Vernon’s soul-baring falsetto, but shows that Blake isn’t afraid to twiddle the knobs. It is a new feeling for Blake, with big gaudy drums and original non-Blake vocals, and though it is far from his strongest track it is a continued commitment to never standing still.
Enough Thunder is full of introspective songs, both sonically and lyrically, to the extent that some seem as if Blake is simply singing to himself at the piano. As on Vernon’s latest release, many of Blake’s lyrics – though repeated many times – are difficult to decipher. More than ever, he uses his vocals as an instrument, rather than as a driving thematic force. “Once We All Agree,” is ethereal, with low piano chords the sole anchor to solid ground. “We Might Feel Unsound,” a track that fits aesthetically with Blake’s Klavierwerke EP, belies the influence of Burial, perhaps the best embodiment of Blake’s definition of dubstep.
Enough Thunder’s penultimate track brings it all together, combining his piano and voice with gentle synth swells and rubbery bass touches. “Not Long Now” is dubstep for blue whales, and it’s finished off with the most whimsical twenty seconds in Blake’s discography. The snippet that closes the song is a wink, and it’s my favorite moment on the album.
In a recent interview, Blake derided the dubstep that has found mainstream success in the United States, calling it a pissing contest to see “who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound.” His latest EP closes with “Enough Thunder,” without even a sniff of bass. “Maybe there’s enough thunder,” he posits. “Tell me, are you with me?”
I doubt we’ve heard the last of James Blake’s thunder days, though he’s more disposed to the lighter side of things on this record. His live concerts show his deep love of deep bass, and he has recently begun including dance tracks like “CMYK” into his live set once more. Enough Thunder is not Blake’s most dynamic or genre-defying work, but neither is it a definitive statement of what is to come. Instead, it is a snapshot of a period of his creativity, a peek into his sketchbook. If you love it, love it. But if it bores you, know that James Blake is probably bored of it too. James Blake is moving on.