James Blake - James Blake - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

James Blake - James Blake

by Rich Morris Rating:6 Release Date:2011-02-07

Is it really time for post-dubstep already? Apparently so, if you believe the hype surrounding young James Blake. As dubstep makes the journey from club phenomenon to home-based soundtrack, just as grime and drum 'n' bass did before it, so the core sounds of the genre will be adapted to suit new environments. Is the hushed, introspective tone of Blake's debut a bold re-imagining of a style which needs to evolve or is it merely a tasteful reduction of a street-level sound for dinner parties and Channel 4 teen dramas?

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, but it has to be said, James Blake is not an easy album to warm to. Its bleak, wintery sounds and stubborn insularity mean it gives precious little of itself away on first listen. Its music falls into two categories: there's the ambient dubstep of 'I Mind', full of distorted vocals and scattered beats, and then there's the maudlin, gospel-tinged ruminations of busted romance, such as 'Why Don't You Call Me?' and the closing 'Measurements'. There is some overlap between the two; 'To Care (Like You)' manages to successfully mix funereal organ with pitch-shifted vocals and popping beats.

Of the two styles, the gospel ballads are the harder to enjoy. Blake's voice is a broken, slightly androgynous, quite sour croon. At times he sounds startlingly similar to Antony Hegarty, especially on 'Give Me My Mouth', where the reverential torch songs of Antony and the Johnsons' I Am a Bird Now are most clear as an influence. However, Blake never achieves the flights of pure emotion Hegarty does, and there's something unpleasantly close to pub singer bluster in his voice on songs such as 'Limit to Your Love' and 'I Never Learnt to Share'. On these tracks, with such sparse production backing his voice, it's worryingly easy to picture Blake performing a cappella in the first round of X Factor auditions. Overall, these torch songs are also a little too cool and self-contained, lacking the velvety seduction necessary to pull you into their misery.

On the plus side, the production is excellent. Blake has genuinely succeeded in mixing two genres which previously appeared entirely disparate but which, once you hear them inhabiting the same space, make instantly compatible bedfellows. The urban chill and trickling paranoia of dubstep and the small-hours introspection of the torch song explore the same emotional spectrum, reminding us how alone we are, how fragile our comfort is. The album does also have some moments of lightness, such as the the ambient soundscapes of 'Lindisfearne I and II', on which Blake's desolate, heavily treated, hymnal vocal recalls Brian Eno's seminal late 70s works. These two tracks seem to form the album's emotional heart, the one moment Blake seems to experience genuine peace, and they are genuinely affecting, lovely moments.

James Blake is undoubtedly a brave, imaginative and innovative record, representing some kind of leap forward for the dubstep sound. How this frontier-pushing will pan out remains to be seen. Will dubstep be absorbed into middle-class dinner party limbo as trip hop was in the mid to late 90s? Or will its artists kick back against a perceived neutering of a sound they've build from the grassroots, ignored until recently by the mainstream? Of course, none of this should be Blake's concern. He has followed his muse to create something unique and for that he deserves the plaudits coming his way. However, the fact remains that James Blake is an album it's easy to respect but hard to love.

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