Album Review: James Blake - James Blake

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James Blake - James Blake
James Blake - James Blake (Image courtesy of Atlas Records)

It's quite rare for a producer of dance music to make a foray into singing, but that's exactly what British electronic wunderkind James Blake has done on his self-titled debut LP, out now on the legendary Belgian techno label R&S. Rather than merely decorating his dance tracks with vocal samples, Blake makes his voice the central element of his new music, yielding an uncanny mutant strain of pop.

For anyone following the British post-rave genre dubstep—a mid-tempo, bombastic and bass-heavy style equally predisposed to pulverizing dancefloor-oriented experiments in sonic texture as it is to digitally-enhanced adventures in rhythmic space and sound-design—2010 was a thrilling, exhausting and confusing year, densely packed with new developments: while the heavier, louder end of the genre grew massively in popularity across America, the British scene took the sound in as many directions as possible.

Some UK producers, with 2007's landmark album Untrue by Burial as their starting point, began to infuse the genre with a sense of dark emotion, particularly with the use of yearning, heavily manipulated vocal samples. Others began to connect dubstep to other UK dance music subgenres, both old (such as the R&B-influenced early-'00s sound 2-step and the furiously rhythmic '90s style called jungle) and new (the Caribbean-and-African-inflected form of house music known as UK funky, which has practically overtaken London's longstanding pirate radio infrastructure). Still others reached even further across genre lines, finding affinity with the druggy experimentalism of Germany's minimal techno scene.

At the nexus of all of this stood the music produced by 22-year-old Londoner James Blake. Blake began releasing music in 2009, but it was his three 2010 EPs—The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke—that grabbed dubstep fans' attention, combining many of the techniques and tools being employed at the left-field fringes of the genre. The result was danceable, but not exactly dance music, a stew of innovative basslines, fractured samples and heady percussion. In the wake of this trio of releases, Blake's steadily rising profile earned him buzz not just within the electronic community but also in the United States indie community, where dance music's cache has risen rapidly. His debut album quickly became one of the most anticipated releases of 2011.

James Blake, however, takes such a sharp left turn that, even within the ever-broadening limits of the genre, it can scarcely be said to be a dubstep album at all. Rather than continue the outer-limits exploration of his EPs, Blake's full-length takes all of the lessons, discoveries and sonic intricacies of Blake's previous work and uses them to craft a deeply melancholy album of slow-burning, claustrophobic pop ballads, sung by Blake himself. This uncharted musical territory is both soulful—thanks in no small part to Blake's surprisingly lovely and emotive voice—and coldly detached, due to the heavy processing his voice undergoes and the disquieting and hermetic digital backdrops that he crafts.

The album's thematic centerpiece and first single, the Feist cover "Limit to Your Love," provides the template for this new sound. The opening of the song is spacious and spare, just Blake's voice and plangent piano chords before a faint echo ushers both sounds into silence. Then, after a brief pause, an impossibly deep bass throb emerges, topped with a steady, clicking percussion track. Blake repeats, recombines and warps all of these elements throughout the track, which unfolds as a minimal, subtly strange torch song.

Elsewhere on the album, some tracks adopt a more traditional pop style while others veer further into synthetic strangeness. "To Care (Like You)" will be a clear touchstone for fans of Blake's earlier experimental work. The song begins with Blake's unaltered crooning before re-pitching and sampling it into oblivion. "I Never Learnt to Share," meanwhile, is a fairly conventional ballad whose synth-organ backing builds into a bruising climax and abruptly dissolves into the dark swaths of echo and reverb that dominate the album's sound. Indeed, both through the sad-sack lyrics and the pervasively bleak sonic atmosphere, the album's songs all share a sense of insularity, interiority and desolation.

As a whole, James Blake is more refreshing than it is depressing. It lays out the coordinates for a peculiar sonic intersection and then takes the listener on a thrilling tour through its possibilities. Its navel-gazing tendency will only become a weakness if Blake fails to branch out further on future releases. As it stands, James Blake is an astonishing debut, and one of the first musical milestones of 2011.