It’s been three years since James Blake released his second album ‘Overgrown’. It earned him the Mercury Music Prize and, since then, his star has risen furiously. He’s collaborated with Chance The Rapper, Beyonce, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon (the latter two of which are involved on this new record), all while gently teasing out his own new tracks via his Radio 1 show and in live sets. The wait for something other than radio rips and bootleg live footage has been long, though, but Blake finally broke his silence last night, announcing ‘The Colour In Anything’ would be released at midnight following teasing the release with Quentin Blake murals and festival announcements. At long last, here’s what the last three years of Blake’s life have produced.
1. Radio Silence
“This was going to be the title track because there was almost a running joke that there’d been so much radio silence from me in my absence,” said Blake in an interview with Annie Mac last night. He also revealed that it was the first song written for the new album, and it’s a pretty strong starting point. Piano tinkles underneath abrasive noise, his soft vocals on top cooing “there’s a radio silence going on”. There’s points where it threatens to take off into an EDM club anthem, but he never quite lets it escape his grasp to go there. An exercise in pushing things to the brink.
“It’s sad that you’re no longer her” is the key lyric, repeated in whole and in fractions nearly the whole way through. While Blake’s lamenting the changes in someone, snapping beats and melancholy bass bursts subtly underpin his sadness, building up until everything comes to a whirring head.
3. Love Me In Whatever Way
What do you do when you feel like your relationship is floundering and you’re desperately clinging on? In Blake’s case, you sample Donny Hathaway’s ‘Giving Up’ and write a song that basically says you’ll do anything to make your partner stay in love with you. “I won’t be so loud if this is what you need/I won’t be so loud if you won’t take my lead,” he sings at one point, full of emotion and earnest. “I know some men hurt more than me/But giving up is hard to do”. It’s hopeless, but utterly beautiful.
According to Blake, this is the track he wanted Kanye to feature on, but “the verse didn’t materialise”. As strong as it would have been to hear Ye sliding into the track, the barely-there minimalism of most of it works just fine without any big name guests. “I can’t be selfless/I’m acting my age,” observes the 27 year old at the start, before ramping up the piercing melodies and rippling bass grooves.
Another reference to people changing (after ‘Points’) comes early in ‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r’, “Don’t use the word ‘forever’/We live too long to be so loved,” Blake warns. “People change and I can be tethered”. He also suggests the old cliché about absence making the heart grow fonder is completely true with the line “While you were away, I started loving you”. It’s a classic piece of sadboy Blake with only his piano for company and features what may be one of his most beautiful lyrics yet: “I noticed just how slow the killer bee’s wings be/And how wonderful, how wonderful/How wonderful you are”.
6. Put That Away And Talk To Me
“Where is my beautiful life?” asks a despairing Blake on this ode to hitting a creative block in the album process. Midway through there’s a chopped up sample of someone asking “can you tell me about the early days?” like a probing journalist haunting and taunting his current state of lacking inspiration. Chiming sounds and discordant buzzes combine as his voice gets angrier, asking “Do you like it when your heroes lose?”, simultaneously frustrated and at a loss.
7. I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix)
There’s a synth line on ‘I Hope My Life’ that’s reminiscent of Dead Or Alive and, while this is no ‘You Spin Me Round’, it’s one of the more upbeat, dance-friendly tracks on ‘The Colour In Anything’. “I hope I’m right when I’m speaking my mind,” opens Blake before singing of “golden trees” over a pounding beat that’s begging for you to race into the middle of the dancefloor.
8. Waves Know Shores
“I suggest you love like love’s no loss,” Blake advises on this brass-flecked piece of elegance, mournful trumpets cushioning his words. It’s nearly three minutes long, but there’s something about it that makes it feel like it lasts just a snatch of that time; a one-pace interlude subtly showing us the way.
9. My Willing Heart
Blake’s friendship with Frank Ocean has long promised to yield some killer music (remember last summer when everyone got angry when Ocean didn’t turn up to Blake’s 1-800 DINOSAUR tour, after his assumed alias BOYSDONTCRY was “added” to the bill?) and at long last it arrives in ‘My Willing Heart’. The pair co-wrote the track, a ballad full of longing and the so unmistakably 21st century line “You’re still on my screen”. It’s graceful and glacial, all shuffling beats, languid piano and palpable heartache.
10. Choose Me
The most intensely emotional track on Blake’s new album. Here, he lets go of all restraint and fully unleashes his pain from a relationship on the rocks. Backing vocals swirl like an ever-strengthening gale, while he cries things like “I’d rather you chose me every day” and “Have I been unkind to you?/Have I got a cloud in hell of mind?” in the kind of way that makes you picture him with veins popping, grabbing at clumps of his own hair. There’s a point where it all stops and fades into calmness, like he’s regained his composure, but it doesn’t last.
11. I Need A Forest Fire
“He just sings gold and it comes out quickly and effortlessly and that’s the kind of person he is,” Blake told Annie Mac last night about working with Justin Vernon. ‘I Need A Forest Fire’ certainly backs up that first point he makes, the Bon Iver man’s vocals offering a rich, gorgeous intro to the pair’s latest collaboration. They don’t make it obvious, but there’s a whole heap of sass present here, Vernon singing “You’re thicker than you think/You know that money bought your name” before Blake joins in searching for destruction.
12. Noise Above Our Heads
“I deserve someone better than someone like me,” goes a robotic voice in the middle of ‘Noise Above Our Heads’, Blake’s song of near-obsession. “I’m here when you don’t sleep so well,” he points out, before claiming “I hear it every time you fall in love/And every muse who puts on every song/I hear the sound of all the lies”. In some ways, it’s a bit creepy, but it’s also the sound of him trying to prove how strong his love is. Like on ‘Love Me In Whatever Way’, there’s the feeling of desperation, as if he’s really trying to convince his partner he’s worth sticking with.
13. The Colour In Anything
“I can’t always help you,” admits Blake on the sparse, piano-only title track. “But I can listen for the sounds you’re making/And how I loved your story/How I wanted to follow you and paint it.” What he’s painting here is a picture of a man in complete and total adoration and devotion, but also one who’s growing a little bit tired. The song ends with him lamenting “You must not be looking/You must not be trying like I’m trying/I can’t always help you.”
14. Two Men Down
Yet more of Blake’s curious but brilliant lyrics strike on ‘Two Men Down’, especially the opening trio. “Oh what a day I chose for you/To tell you that I loved you/You know you sounded like knuckles that never cracked.” He lifts things out of the doldrums with sounds like a dog excitedly barking and rattling percussion like that of a marching band. It’s one of the record’s stranger tracks, but all the more endearing for its burst into a surreal, experimental land.
15. Modern Soul
‘Modern Soul’ is perhaps a continuation of some of ‘Overgrown”s themes of Blake ruminating on being an artist in the public eye. “I see the scenery changes, changes”, he sings at one point, a potential comment on how his life has changed from humble beginnings studying popular music at Goldsmiths to collaborating with the likes of Beyoncé and Frank Ocean. “What I didn’t see was I was talking to so many people,” he sings later, ahead of a chorus that revolves around the repeated line “because of a few songs”. If it is about being a performer, we hope he doesn’t mean the song’s last line: “I want it to be over, I want it to be over.”
The record’s penultimate track finds Blake in happier mood, refrains of cheerful piano layering over jazzy cymbals as he admits “this is how I wanna feel/It’s so easy”. “It’s a sweet world,” he sings in soft falsetto, shedding any of the sorrow he’s previously held throughout the album, but it doesn’t last for long.
17. Meet You In The Maze
If you thought James was gonna run out of steam before the end of his mammoth record, then ‘Meet You In The Maze’ is gonna prove you damn wrong. It’s not a massive banger to end on, but the most devastating track on the whole of ‘The Colour In Anything’. “Music can’t be everything,” he sighs between wondering if his lover will “find another”. It’s as sparse as it’s possible to get – just layers of heavily manipulated vocals – which only adds to its heartbreaking effect. Tissues at the ready.