Album Review: James Blake - James Blake
There has been much in the way of sweeping generalisations and blatant untruths about James Blake and his creative development flying around lately, which is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his sudden flavour-of-the-month status within the mainstream media. The idea that Blake has evolved steadily from his superb, defiantly weird early EPs – characterised by chopped vocal samples, stuttering synths and woozy sub-bass – to his current, more mainstream-friendly sound is an understandable assumption: the way he’s released his music over time suggests just as much. However, if you listen back to his 2009 Electronic Explorations mix, the very first track he leads in with is his oft-maligned cover of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, while he told Pitchfork last year that "it’s a strange feeling to have a lot of electronic music out when all you want to do is sing." All along, it seems, Blake has been balancing these contradictory impulses.
Far from being a game-changer or a grand statement, then, James Blake - the Londoner's first long-player – is best viewed as, quite simply, a very good album. For a record that seemed set to collapse under the burden of hype and context before it was even released, it’s almost amusing how self-effacing and subdued the vibe is in places. On ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ and the aforementioned ‘Limit To Your Love’ fragile, soulful vocals and mournful tempos interact; signifiers of Blake’s past work remain - witness the cavernous bass fills on the latter - but for the most part they’re employed quite sparingly. The debt owed by the two ‘Lindesfarne’ tracks to Bon Iver is well-documented: the first of these is essentially a sparse, forlorn vocoder experiment that leads directly into a fairly plodding second part. ‘I Never Learnt To Share’, meanwhile, is destined to divide opinion (for this writer's money it sounded an awful lot better on that Electronic Explorations mix); if anything, it’s the second half of the track, with its gaudy, out-of-place synths, that proves most grating - as opposed to the vocal repetitions of the first half.
‘I Mind’ and ‘To Care (Like You)’ see Blake divert from the template to a certain extent: both meticulous exercises in chopped-up vocal samples and stuttering glitches, they’re two of the stronger tracks here, even if they remain somewhat subdued in tempo, lacking the bass-anchored pulse of the producer's finest moments. Closing number ‘Measurements’ takes a stab at a sort of minimal-electro-gospel: on first inspection the results are stunning, but after a few listens it proves more of a competent and enjoyable tune, rather than a truly resounding one.
Despite the great moments, then – and James Blake is frequently a stunningly-produced, deep and soulful-sounding record – there’s always that nagging feeling that Blake is selling his talents a bit short with this approach. The material he displayed on the CMYK and The Bells Sketch EPs, in particular, still sounds extraordinary and daring in a way that this LP rarely does. As much as some mainstream outlets may want to paint this album as Blake’s musical coming-of-age, many of us are hoping it’s more of a temporary diversion.