It’s rather fitting that James Blake dropped his long-awaited third record The Colour in Anything in the same week when Radiohead released their own hotly-anticipated ninth record. Countless contemporary artists owe various stylistic flourishes to Thom Yorke & Co., but Blake owes them a particular debt with his mournful vocals, skittering electronic idiosyncrasies, and abstruse lyrics. Much like Blake’s first two records, The Colour in Anything offers generous portions of despairing, dub-inflected R&B and robotic folk. However, spanning nearly 80 minutes and 17 tracks, Colour is also far more sprawling and ambitious than anything Blake has previously attempted. The result is a gorgeous, contemplative record that offers no shortage of breathtaking moments, even if it may be difficult to digest all in one sitting.
This is the first James Blake album in a post-Sam Smith world, so even though Blake was the O.G. falsetto-heavy British soulster, it’s hard not to hear the similarities now. But for all of the passion underlying his croon, one never gets the sense on Colour that Blake is laying on the melodrama too thick. It is to his credit that on such an expansive record of mid-tempo ballads, pretty much all of the songs strike just the right emotional chord.
Blake facilely channels the tempered heartbreak of none other than our generation’s Lauryn Hill, the mysterious Frank Ocean, so it should be no surprise that Ocean and Blake worked together on Colour. Their collaboration hits its peak on the standout stunner “My Willing Heart”. After opening with a few seconds of bizarre, quaveringly disembodied vocals, the beat kicks in and Blake’s voice swells a ghostly choir on the chorus in a truly splendid use of crescendo. Similarly excellent is the elegiac, beautiful “Waves Know Shores”, a stately, trumpet-enhanced ballad that sounds like it should play over a solitary confessional in an Anglican church. “You wanna know me like waves know shores,” Blake repeats reverentially, unclear if he’s talking to God, a lover, or himself, as the solemn horns fade out.
Ocean isn’t the only friendly face that shows up on Colour—there’s also a welcome cameo from Blake’s pal Bon Iver on the stirring “I Need a Forest Fire”. The recurring hook of “another shape, another shadow” sounds like it was ripped straight from a Blood Bank outtake. And damn it is good just to hear Justin Vernon’s voice again—that reedy croon melding perfectly with Blake’s similarly pitched falsetto. In fact, it’s difficult in certain spots to tell which one of them is singing. The instrumentation isn’t particularly ostentatious—it’s mostly a vocal showcase—but it’s great to hear two of indie music’s best male vocalists soaring to new heights together.
Blake received a publicity boost in 2014 when HBO’s little-watched program The Leftovers used “Retrograde” from 2013’s Overgrown in its TV spots. Almost as if taking a cue from that campaign, the tracks on Colour are striking for their cinematic quality. The album’s finest track, and already one of my favorite of 2016, “Modern Soul”, is the best example, sporting a spectral piano loop that could score a twilight forest walk and a cagey drum beat that instills a sensation that something is coming. “Love Me in Whatever Way”, with its beautifully crooned titular refrain over an incessant synth hook, could soundtrack a breakup or love scene in equal measure.
“I listened to my old music and I really didn’t sound like a happy person,” Blake said in a recent Pitchfork interview. It’s funny he should say that, because honestly, he doesn’t sound much happier on Colour. Opener “Radio Silence” begins ominously enough, coasting on a bed of paranoid synths and foreboding minor piano chords as Blake wails “I don’t know how you feel…but in my heart, there’s a radio silence going on.” The title track is a spare piano ballad that equates colorblindness with lack of joy. The tender “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” seems devotional at first, before the melody goes sour and Blake cautions “Don’t use the word ‘forever’ / We live too long to be so lived.” Fortunately, these heavier moments are balanced out by some of the record’s trippier electronic experiments, such as the 6-minute-plus “Two Men Down” which resembles a mid-80s New Order B-side, embellished what I’m pretty sure are dog barks. On “Choose Me”, Blake alternates between T-Pain vocoded yelps and robotic talk-box pleas of “I’d rather you choose me.” Even within a fairly established sound, Blake finds room for surprises and stylistic variation.
Even if Colour doesn’t drastically alter Blake’s sound, it widens and refines it, keeping what made his first two records so memorable while hinting that there remains ever further room for growth. What’s so wonderful about The Colour in Anything, and perhaps Blake’s entire aesthetic, is how fearlessly he embraces the electronic, computerized constructs of modern, 21 century hip-hop and pop while retaining the distinctly human sensations of R&B and folk music. Blake is the ghost in the machine, his glacial, robotic numbness sizzling in stark contrast to his hot-blooded emotional declarations. Modern soul, indeed. B PLUS