Review: James Blake - Overgrown

Overgrown is not the enigma that was his debut, but rather it is a very good album from a musician that isn’t all that interested in being enigmatic.


When James Blake released his self-titled album in 2011, revealing a sound that simultaneously drew on and abandoned his dubstep roots, there was a tendency to call his record “of the moment.”  The implication was that Blake foresaw the decline of dubstep as an organic, innovative genre and, as a result, decided to explore new sonic territory.  This opportunist take on Blake's career trajectory was a way of making sense of his rapid switch from grimey, snapping production to vocal compositions that worked with soulful textures, slow-moving rhythms, and pockets of silence.  Yet, after listening to Overgrown, there is a stronger case to be made that Blake simply gets bored easily.  As most artists clamor to establish and protect an identifiable sound, Blake remains more interested in expanding his songwriting, finding new ways for his remarkable aggregate of ideas to play out.  Overgrown is Blake's most confident embrace of those ideas.  The album draws more heavily on pop and the rhythms branch out from post-dubstep to incorporate hip-hop, house, and various R&B influences.  Blake has said that he “thrive[s] on not knowing what comes next;” Overgrown reinforces that philosophy.

The album opens with the eponymous track and an introduction to the fuller, more encompassing sound that Blake has adopted.  In contrast to “Unluck,” an opener that relied on atmosphere and tone more so than structure for its effect, “Overgrown” slowly builds and unfurls layers of delicate piano, sub-bass, varied synth lines, and vocal repetitions.  These smokey, piano driven tracks are familiar territory for Blake; but by blending his atmospheric tendencies with a more developed understanding of the song he wants to craft, he's able to write tunes that are as haunting as they are catchy.  “Retrograde” builds itself around a deceptively simple vocal melody.  Blake's humming lends both a tonal anchor to the song and a pervasive sense of humanity and longing.  It's an emotional primer that makes its all the more potent when Blake asks someone he loves to “ignore everybody else,” because they are “alone now.”  These compositional strengths continue on “To the Last,” a simple bedroom R&B arrangement that allows Blake's voice to sprawl out in heart-wrenching fashion.  These songs show Blake's maturation as a songwriter but much of the rest Overgrown finds him expanding his techniques.

Blake working with Brian Eno and different shades of dance music is not all that surprising; but the inclusion of The RZA and the heavily hip-hop indebted “Life Round Here” is an unexpected, yet satisfying development.  Blake has said that after writing “Take a Fall For Me” he knew that RZA would be the only voice that was appropriate.  Indeed, Diggs' fierce, commanding tone curls itself around the songs dark and dusty instrumentation.  RZA pioneered the art of making beats that recall dank cement basements and sinister men with hoodies; Blake's production draws on that approach and builds further dimensions of emotion and romance.  James croons brightly in the background as RZA explains how “sex shapes the body, but truth shapes the mind.”  The previous song, “Life Round Here,” also draws on this combination of grit and vulnerability.  Centered around a drum beat worthy of Organized Noize, the track weaves together synth lines of varying distortion, swelling and collapsing in unpredictable ways.  These hip-hop influences run alongside the dance music tendencies that have consistently informed Blake's sound.  “Digital Lion,” a collaboration with Brian Eno, employs deep, throbbing bass, a la Andy Stott, and “Every Day I Ran” chops a Big Boi sample into a dizzying blend of snapping drums and heavy reverb.  In general, Overgrown's sounds are exploratory, dynamic, and persistently engrossing.

The title of the album comes from the Emily Dickinson poem, “All overgrown by cunning moss.”  It's a poem about a bird stuck in a cage watching the moss grow higher around it.  The bird then leaves in the winter and never returns to its nest.  Dickinson wrote these words for Charlotte Bronte, a writer that Dickinson loved but had since lost.  The poem is not only about the author's admiration for Bronte, but it is also about the impermanence of life and the uncertainty as to where exactly one will be when the moss starts to become overgrown.  These sentiments are a part Blake's album.  Since his last record was released he has fallen in love and began to more fully realize the “uncertainty of the music industry, and the uncertainty of [his] position in it.”  On “Retrograde” he sings “is this the darkness or the dawn?”  Perhaps this lack of clarity about so many elements of his life inspired Blake to craft an album that made complete sense to him in the moment, independent of any other considerations.  Some will deride his collaboration with RZA, but it is this exploration of new territory that has defined and will continue to define Blake's career.  Overgrown is not the enigma that was his debut, but rather it is a first-rate album from a musician that isn't all that interested in being enigmatic.  [B+]

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