James Blake, James Blake

Photo by Jonas Bendiksen

[Atlas Recordings]

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The way James Blake quietly sneaked into prominence on the back of a steady stream of evermore impressive EP releases is a humbling example of calculated narrative, or accidental genius. It’s probably best to assume it’s a bit of both; a recent interview reveals that his self-titled debut album has been finished for a while, not quite the instantaneous coming-out-the-shell moment so many people would like it to be. Blake has slowly revealed himself pixel-by-pixel with each release, culminating in the solo piano hallucinations of the Klavierwerke EP and “Limit To Your Love,” a straightforward Feist cover featuring his (almost) untouched voice and even a video, Blake’s visage in plain sight. The hushed intensity of “Limit” would seem to paint Blake as either dubstep’s latest pinup or its Joni Mitchell. So which is it?

While Blake would probably like you to think the latter, really, the answer is neither. James Blake is James Blake, and his debut album is almost uncomfortably probing in its purview of his innermost thoughts. Blake claimed not to alter the album to any potential label’s specifications, and it shows: this record has all the hallmarks, confused moments and false starts of someone trying to create their very first masterpiece and refusing an editor. What must be said is that James Blake is not a “dubstep-pop” album, nor is it even a dubstep album; he’s not making dubstep as palatable pop music for the masses in the same way as Nero or Magnetic Man. Rather, James Blake is forty minutes of bedroom recordings and hesitant, broken electronics, most comparable to early Jamie Lidell or Caribou (back when he was called Manitoba).

Every track on James Blake features a full-on vocal melody undergoing different levels of tumble-dry manipulation or emasculating truncation. Blake’s apparent journey from the clipped histrionics of “Air & Lack Thereof” to the open space of “Limit” can be traced through tracks like “I Mind,” swarms of swirling syllables eclipsing an otherwise pleasant vocal melody, or opener “Unluck” where tiny pins penetrate the song’s plaintive vocal until it’s an unstable, quivering mess. Veering across to the other end of the spectrum, “Limit” is accompanied by like-minded bits of clarity. “The Wilhelm Scream,” while essentially an attempt to write a Feist song — right down to the restless chromatic-scaling melody and the perfectly-placed vocal cracks — is the closest Blake has come to outright pop, and “Measurements” is rousing, one-man gospel.

What troubles the idea of James Blake as dubstep troubadour, however, is that his attempts at poppy material often feel less than fleshed-out, even unfinished, fragments of lucidity from an artist with a background in making dance music. “I Never Learnt To Share” seems to give up halfway, repeating the same line ad nauseum but burying it in layers of white-hot synth swells. The song’s conclusion, as it tips over into a pool of boiling electronics, is thrilling in the same way as “CMYK”‘s but the long and spare exposition barely justifies the means. Like so much of the album, it’s stuck somewhere in a purgatorial state between pop and avant, and while that’s not a bad place to be, it doesn’t lend itself well to grand proclamations on either side of the divide. Often Blake’s fascinating production is caged in favor of vocals, or brilliant vocal melodies are disrupted and minimized (“Why Don’t You Call Me”). It’s a progression of his story arc, an album-length implosion of Klavierwerke rather than some paradigm-shifting revolution.

But Blake doesn’t need to be anyone’s troubadour, nor any scene’s figurehead; he’s made enough of a stir already with his own uncompromising music, and that’s all that his debut album is — just with a bit more humanity leaking in than usual. James Blake is an enveloping, engaging view into the psyche of a rare and unique musical personality with all the flaws and imperfections of a real person. It’s also one of the most affecting albums to come out of “dubstep” if you can latch onto one of its fleeting moments of openness. Those same moments are responsible for Blake’s glut of global attention, but in doing so he’s not revolutionizing electronic dance music so much as putting out an unforgettable album whose humanity is so potent and honest it reaches across the boundaries of geography, scene, or genre.

Blaktony  on February 17, 2011 at 10:14 AM

Didn’t know what 2 expect really, but whateva dude’s doin’ it works. Different but, the vocals (songwrting)& tracks give focus 2 originality & humanity in electronic music, which i favor….not bad.


Little White Earbuds February Charts 2011 | Little White Earbuds  on October 8, 2011 at 11:58 AM

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