James Blake – James Blake

written by: February 7, 2011
James Blake - Self Titled album cover Release Date: February 7, 2011


Upon releasing his first EP last year, The Bells Sketch, James Blake was considered an upcoming talent. By the release of his third, Klavierwerke, he became the future of electronic music. Melding various elements of dubstep and ambient, among other things, Blake crafted three wholly unique EPs.

Later, Blake dropped a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.” Through this we finally got to hear his untreated voice. Somehow Blake’s voice manages to emulate the frailty and hollowness of the vocals sampled by the likes of Burial while sounding and being very real. The music featured deep, deep bass, a languorous structure with a very minimalistic production and a dark, desolate atmosphere. It was almost like he was falling apart and coming to peace simultaneously as the song progressed. It buries itself deep inside the brain of any listener and it’s hard for them not to carry its weight afterward.

Despite the strength of the EPs, they were just a teaser for this LP. Blake utilizes characteristics from each and expands on them a lot. The obvious evolution here is the pronounced vocal work. He takes influence from unlikely subjects Joni Mitchell, Antony Hegarty and Justin Vernon.

In fact, this album bears more resemblance to Bon Iver than anything in contemporary electronic music.

That’s not to discredit the heaps of innovation on this record. Blake brings to electronic music what Bon Iver brought to folk rock: A soulful croon, melodic shapes drawn from soul and pop, perfectly sparse production, and even more proof auto-tune can be used as a legitimate artistic tool. There’s a frequent avant-pop approach similar to what How to Dress Well did on last year’s Love Remains: An expressive, distinguishable but sometimes unsettling melody with a sort of formless accompaniment. Songs sometimes end with no closure, but that’s part of the magic.

Throughout the record, Blake uses his own voice instead of R&B samples as on the CMYK EP. This adds not only a much more human effect, but gives him more room to contort the vocals in ways that previously recorded samples cannot. Enter “Unluck,” the albums opening track. Blake brings in a claustrophobic beat further exhibiting his mastery of dead space. He begins to croon an indecipherable lyric a little off the beat, full of soul but sort of mumbled. Then he pitch-shifts and auto-tunes it, adds spikes of synths and then lets these parts ebb and flow for a couple minutes and then it stops. It’s bizarre, but enrapturing.

“The Wilhelm Scream” is likely the most uniquely beautiful thing to be released this year. Coming after “Unluck,” Blake gives the listener a chance to regroup (even though it hasn’t even been four minutes yet) as he slowly develops the layers underneath his repeated lines: ” All that I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling, falling/Might as well fall in.” With the waves of sound cascading on them, the listener soon realizes this is exactly how they feel. From here on Blake has everyone hooked.

With each twisted vocal, each dissonant mash of instruments and each unexpected turn or stop, there comes a pure voice, a lull and ultimately a resonance.

And to reiterate: The bass gets really deep and heavy. It could level a building. Anyone with those ridiculous subwoofers in their cars could not play this album, because it would obliterate the car. But unlike the music that often comes through those woofers, Blake drops the bass sporadically. Sometimes it’s even hidden in the background. It’s always for taste, and when it drops, it’s all the more powerful for it.

Short interludes “Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” give Blake a chance to showcase his classically trained piano work. “Measurements” closes the album like a macabre gospel choir. The song just kind of ends.There’s no indicator that the song is going to end, no audio cue, no crescendo or decrescendo, nothing. The music just stops. But Blake prepared listeners for this. It will leave them feeling like Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” They might never have a satisfying ending, but they’ll keep trying, because the feeling they get listening to this is just that strong.

James Blake’s full-length is awaited by many with bated breath. Those who are expecting the cornerstone of dubstep are likely to be disappointed. But they would only be doing themselves disservice. This is the most sincere work to come out of dubstep this side of Burial’s Untrue. Even Burial knew he nailed it with that album and hasn’t bothered to follow it up. No, this record transcends genre.  James Blake is uncompromisingly creative and emotive. And this is just the beginning.

James Blake Tracklist:

  1. Unluck
  2. The Wilhelm Scream
  3. I Never Learnt to Share
  4. Lindisfarne I
  5. Lindisfarne II
  6. Limit to Your Love
  7. Give Me My Month
  8. To Care (Like You)
  9. Why Don’t You Call Me
  10. I Mind
  11. Measurements