The young wünderkind’s production talents are not in doubt, but his songwriting might need a little more work
Even now, seasoned hype-watchers may feel entitled to ask: who the hell is [a]James Blake[/a]? During the course of a whirlwind 18-month rise to fame, the 21-year-old producer has been branded dubstep ninja, Brit School pseud, emo pub singer and high priest of cerebral, modernist pop almost all in the same breath.
The cocky bastard’s been the new [a]Joy Orbison[/a], [a]Burial[/a] and [a]The xx[/a] (the latter of whom Blake says have been “keeping the seat warm” for him in terms of carving out space in the mainstream for a studiedly minimal aesthetic). Still, you have to hand it to him. The man is quite simply a mystery wrapped inside an enigma, wrapped inside a giant metaphysical Kinder Egg of befuddlement.
Perhaps key to all the fuss surrounding Blake is the speed and peculiar shape of his trajectory: from the fizzing, soul-tinged sounds of the [b]‘CMYK’[/b] EP to [b]‘Klavierwerke’[/b]’s more abstracted dubstep template, and on, most shockingly of all, to that cover of [a]Feist[/a]’s [b]‘Limit To Your Love’[/b], which unveiled him as a singer of ultra-pared down, neophyte soul and hinted heavily at the direction of his debut.
It’s a promise Blake makes good on with opener [b]‘Unluck’[/b], whose guttering, church-candle synthesizer and finger clicks underscore an Auto-Tuned vocal from our inscrutable charge. It’s an effective opener whose effect is positively Spartan; like being plunged into a too-shallow bath, the small warmth generated serving to highlight how fucking cold you are.
[b]‘Wilhelms Scream’[/b] is the next single and probably the track ripest for Vic Reeves-style pub-singer parody here, with Blake essaying a sort of jazz-inflected soul that sounds like Paul Young given a hipster reboot. About halfway through, a spaceship seems to hove into earshot, sitting like a dead weight on the track’s chest for the remainder, but the bland impression remains, like rings on the coffee table.
[b]‘I Never Learnt To Share’[/b] fares better; a modernist gospel in multi-tracked harmony:[i]“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them”[/i]. Synths drone in purposely awkward fashion, then a kick-drum enters the mix and suddenly it all makes sense – as with so much minimalist art, the trick’s in the framing here. Finally, the synths build to a screeching crescendo and rev like an electric car whose clutch plates haven’t caught. It’s an astonishing moment of chutzpah, and a cathartic blast on a record whose austerity often precludes them.
If the first three tracks roll out their unadorned blueprint over the shiny bones of a dubstep beat, then [b]‘Lindisfarne I’[/b] and [b]‘II’[/b] forgo all that. One can only assume Blake’s gunning for a cameo on Kanye’s new record here, such are the levels of sheer Bon Iver-ian tranquility on display – the first part’s a cappella, Auto-Tuned vocal could easily be an outtake from Vernon’s [b]‘Blood Bank’[/b] EP, and when an acoustic guitar enters the fray in the second, the feeling’s only intensified.
Echoes of leftfield singer-songwriters abound, in fact: [b]‘Why Don’t You Call Me’[/b] sounds like a so-so Antony And The Johnsons homage, and [b]‘Give Me My Month’[/b]’s melody unfolds with the fawn-like grace of a Dirty Projectors composition. Meanwhile [b]‘Limit To Your Love’[/b], while doubtless overplayed, still has the power to steal breath with its two-chord, piano stabs.
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But ultimately Blake isn’t yet the singer-songwriter to pull this album off. The blazing production talent behind [b]‘CMYK’[/b] and [b]‘Air And Lack Thereof’[/b] is sadly absent at times, and the album generally works best where Blake is able to match his interest in traditional songwriting with a more textured approach, as with [b]’I Mind’[/b]’s downbeat funky rhythm, paired with a twisting hook that deploys Blake’s smooth, choirboy vocals more as instrument than lyrical vehicle.
But elsewhere Blake’s silences don’t weigh as heavy as he thinks they do, and ‘[a]James Blake[/a]’ is too calculated an act of daring to really shine.