The British music press is a bizarre thing. In the second half of every year it seems to latch on to a certain band or artist and create impossibly high standards for their debut. They then, more often than not, seem to turn on them as soon as they don’t reach these targets. Enter James Blake. A twenty two year old musician who for the last few months of 2010 had music journalists, especially here in Britain, eating out of his hand. The hype built and built until ridiculous statements about James Blake being the future of ‘dubstep’ and even ‘pop music’ were being thrown around. Blake finally released his album this week which was met by a mainly lukewarm reception.
One of the main reasons for this reaction to his debut seems to be his change in direction. Blake has cashed in his mainly dubstep oriented sound from his EPs for a more straightforward approach.James Blake consists mainly of Blake showing off his classical music training; singing, doing his own backing vocals and playing a piano with it being manipulated and cut up in a more electronic nature later on in the process. The best way to describe this new sound is a comparison to similar minded musician Bon Iver. They are vocally quite similar, both being quite unorthodox and with a deep sorrow behind them. James Blake, like Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, also has a weird contrast in his voice, sounding both weak and strong. Another similarity Blake has with Bon Iver is a very simple sound with not much going on at once which leaves Blake’s voice to do the talking. However, this is maybe not the massive change that everyone is making out. Blake’s sound since day one has changed with each release so it was to be expected. And yes, while this is much more a singer-songwriter album than it’s predecessors, there are still many characteristics from his earlier work such as sonic walls of sound and glitches.
A great deal has been made about Blake’s use of silence on this album and rightly so. James Blake‘s main success is in holding back. His vocals and lyrics are simple and sparse but this gives them a haunted feel throughout. Blake has a fantastic way with words, as shown in the profoundness in lines as simple as “Crease your pride/Telling lies/That you’re not on your own” and “I don’t know about my dream/I don’t know about my dreaming anymore.” He is spare on the bass as well but this just makes it all the more powerful when it kicks in. There is no better example of this than on the first single, Feist Cover, Limit To Your Love where the bass kicks in in the chorus to dramatic effect. The album is a fairly quiet one from start to finish and this and the silence used creates a fantastic atmosphere. This is an album of build up and moments with these ‘moments’ having massive beauty. There are too many examples of this to list here but to name a few; When the fuzzy wall of sound kicks in on The Wilhelm Scream, the dubstep like breakdown at the end of I Never Learnt to Share, the moment when the piano and the glitchy drum machine meet in I Mind. Unfortunately, occasionally the build ups seem to suffer because of these ‘moments’ with some parts just not living up to the rest of the song.
There was always a fear with James Blake that it came out too early after his success and may sound rushed. This is not what has happened at all though, nothing steps out of line once and Blake knows exactly what he’s doing throughout. That is apart from To Care (Like You), however, which has times where the layers feel quite cluttered. That is just one track though and the album doesn’t feel forced at all, feeling like Blake has let these songs develop naturally and organically.
No, James Blake is not the future of dubstep and it’s not the future of pop music. What it is though, is a fantastic collection of songs by a highly talented musician and producer. On this album, Blake proves himself to be highly proficient in using silence and slow builds to create emotion and atmosphere. While this is not the groundbreaking album the music press seemed to expect, it does suggest that Jame Blake may be capable of it in the near future.