James Blake – ‘Overgrown’

Intimate and ambitious second album from the dubstep troubadour

There was a time, before the melancholy of his self-titled 2011 debut album, when James Blake dealt in the sort of ribcage-rattling bass music that made the walls of basement raves shudder and quake. These days the 24-year-old Londoner leans more towards sobering Joni Mitchell confessionals that spiral around soulful caresses of piano and icy echoes of electronics. This is an evolution that won him Brit and Mercury nods and admirable album sales – 40,000 and counting – but also criticism from the underground club scene he rose from for being too serious and mopey.

Whatever your take on Blake – who has become one of the most divisive British indie artists around – there’s no ignoring how inventive his sound is. On ‘Overgrown’ it’s honed to something so intense it’ll give you an aneurysm if you listen too hard. The record is infinitely more assured than ‘James Blake’, and more ambitious in its jerks between genres. Whether it’s the chopped’n’screwed R&B of ‘Life Around Here’ that’s been warped like a D’Angelo cassette melted in the sun on a car dashboard, the glitching gospel of ‘Voyeur’, or the stripped-back moments of tender piano and vocals that make up the ghostly ‘DLM’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’, Blake has clearly found a new confidence in not catering for anyone or anything except his own eccentric, scattered tastes. “Ignore everybody else”, he pines over looped vocal licks on sensual
recent single ‘Retrograde’. “We’re alone now”.

‘Overgrown’ is so intimate you’ll feel every inch of that loneliness – a man isolated in a weird, wintry world with only the minimalist chill of his new album’s bleeps, beats and wounded wails for company.

Elsewhere, blockbuster cameos spell out the sort of company he keeps these days. A collaboration with Brian Eno, ‘Digital Lion’, fizzes to a thrilling white-noise climax straight out of the Thom Yorke book of noise pollution (think Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ for an airport in the middle of a terrorist evacuation). But it’s Wu-Tang producer/rapper RZA’s guest spot on ‘Take A Fall For Me’ that gives the record a memorable epicentre. “Fish and chips with vinegar, with a cold glass of stout”, spits the Staten Island man in his best Brighton Pier tourist impersonation around a repeated plea that
“you can’t marry her”.

On his debut, Blake was caught in a no-man’s land between the club music he had outgrown and the as-tender-as-Bon Iver trappings he’d yet to fully master, unsure of what he wanted it to be. His sound is no less divided this time around, but on ‘Overgrown’ he’s done making apologies for it. It’s not an easy listen, but it may just be one of the most nuanced, soothing and adventurous of 2013.

Al Horner