At its best, Blake’s debut is boundary breaking in its vision.
Natalie Shaw 2011
Since James Blake’s breakout remix of Untold’s Stop What You’re Doing in late 2009 – which saw him twist up the original with beats taken beyond the pale – he’s pushed his artistic limits beyond recognition. A blinding 12-month period saw him birth three groundbreaking EPs (The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke), drawing on electronic music, UK bass, commercial RnB, gospel and ambient. And then there was his stunning cover of Feist’s Limit to Your Love, by all standards his most accessible song to date – if you take its rib-crushing sub-bass away from the delicate piano-and-vocal foray at the helm.
On his long-awaited debut album, Blake moves his informed, excited mastery into yet another sphere; instead of manipulating tension through a library of beats, he now mostly draws on silence and vocal treatment. Take The Wilhelm Scream, where Blake’s jittery, double-tracked vocals are forever trying to catch up with the beat. The gaps make the song’s climax all the more of a spectacle.
Not all of this album’s silences, however, are build-ups to breakdowns. The tension of Unluck’s initial yearning and snappy beats become buried low down in the mix by the end, instead of crashing and burning. I Never Learnt to Share is similar, becoming more dissonant and riled as it unfolds before bursting and then coming up again, struggling for air. To Care (Like You) follows a similar non-format, starting with an untreated vocal before morphing into something equally bleak but entirely robotic, stone-cold. There’s no time for luring the listener in to a false sense of comfort, except on the gospel-influenced Measurements, the most familiar-sounding song here.
This 22-year-old Londoner certainly isn’t shy of ambition, and but that’s not to say this album is without its failings; Lindesfarne I and II, a universe away from the swagger and uppers of CMYK’s top line and sub-bass, are a step behind. The compressed silences and formlessly spacious sounds are overwhelming through headphones for baser reasons. Give Me My Month similarly adds little, working only as an interlude.
Aside from the hype, this album is by no means a feasible breakthrough into the mainstream – there’s not stride enough for that. But when it’s at its best, it’s boundary-breaking – and Blake is indeed a rare specimen, with many faces, each obscured. Each playback draws the listener in closer towards to the record’s core, like a dimmer switch being raised incrementally – a true beauty to behold.