James Blake’s self-titled debut is a paradox. Somehow, this icy, minimalist electronic album oozes warmth and swells to an immense size that seems impossible. It gives a face to the anonymous dubstep sound pioneered by Burial. James Blake is ethereal music that makes you feel.
I was ready to hate this album. I was ready to dismiss Blake as a flash in the pan or a lucky bedroom recorder who stumbled on a pastiche genre that struck the collective passing fancy. But a friend played me the album once, and within seconds that bias was shattered. I love this album.
James Blake is an intensely personal, despairing record that proves exactly the opposite of what I feared: James Blake is not some overhyped young Brit, he is, as Clash magazine dubbed him, the “crown prince of the quiet revolution.”
I think the hardest thing about James Blake is that, well, it’s really tough to describe what exactly it is about James Blake. On the surface, his music is not particularly remarkable; James Blake is filled with sparse, open tunes that are repetitive to a point just shy of monotony. It’s slow-moving dance music that you can’t actually dance to, with dubstep influences being boiled down to their logical and deteriorating endpoint. Blake’s voice is beautiful, but it’s not extraordinary. His lyrics are basic, albeit in a profound sort of way.
Perhaps it’s the feeling that there is something that exists right outside the boundary of this music – a sort of parallel universe that is only hinted to in the actual songs, left to be discovered by the listener. Songs like “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “I Mind” start and end notes and syllables midway through, rather than letting them organically start and end, as if there’s no time to waste in getting the note to sound. The result feels sublimely incomplete, as if the entirety was just never meant to be finished. The recording of the album follows suit, simultaneously unpolished and crystal clear -– like exquisitely recorded demos await proper treatment.
James Blake -– and, indeed, James Blake — is so internalized that it’s almost difficult to separate the music from the inferred sound your brain fills into the interstices. This album is designed to inhabit your brain space. Blake is a master of minutiae, savoring each sweet second of lingering silence. Nowhere does he do that better than on the album’s second song, “The Wilhelm Scream.” Named for the ubiquitous, iconic, and somewhat overblown movie stock scream, the song is subtly spectacular, from the echoing radar pings to the slowly drowning vocals.
Regarding the vocals, Blake shies away from his usual sampling on this album, choosing instead to do the majority of the singing himself. It’s beautiful, and although the result is a less foreboding and ominous set of songs, he loses none of his nuance. In the process, he proves once and for all — for those who were still wondering — that there’s a right way to use autotune. Anyone looking for a clinic on its proper deployment should give a listen to James Blake. Where some artists rely on the vocoder as a crutch, Blake embraces it as an instrument, using it to expand the capabilities of his already velvety voice. Songs like “I Never Learnt To Share” evoke Bon Iver’s “Woods,” with natural beauty conjured by machines.
The parallels to Bon Iver don’t stop there. Despite working with dramatically different toolsets, the two artists do a similarly remarkable job of evoking a glassy landscape through sound. Like For Emma, Forever Ago, though, James Blake is puzzlingly warm and approachable, its icy exterior melting away to reveal a vulnerable core.
I firmly believe that albums are rooted in seasons – that certain things sound certain ways at certain times. With that in mind, this album is perfectly matched for these winter months. This is the time of year when we retreat into our rooms, when we put on our headphones and shut out the world. James Blake makes the overcast world outside make sense, and then makes it fades away. I’ll be interested to see how this album stays with me over the course of hot summer months, but right now it’s absolutely pitch perfect.
No matter how well it stands the test of time –- and I’m convinced it will hold up quite well –- this is an audacious release from a young artist who isn’t afraid to break new ground. You want to hear my definition of bravery? Releasing a debut album so full of silence that it sometimes seems like it’s over prematurely. Want to hear my definition of brilliance? Pulling that off without losing your audience. “Lindesfarne 1” alone – a two minute and forty-three second long song – has over 60 seconds of complete silence spread out across the track, with the pauses sometimes stretching to five seconds in length. Man, that is gutsy. And here’s the thing: Rather than losing steam during those passages, Blake builds it, creating a palpable tension through the mere absence of sound.
James Blake isn’t for everyone. Some may find him boring. Some may find him inaccessible. Some may still think he’s a flash in the pan. All I know is I’m falling for this album.