Though blurred, that James Blake on the cover doesn’t obscure the fact that the guy’s now a popstar of sorts. The album art isn’t new: we first saw the image, depicting Blake as a kind of split Jekyll and Hyde figure, on the cover of the Klavierwerke EP. The two records don’t share much in common, but it was obviously decided that it’d be silly not to have the boy on the cover for the main event. He’s pretty easy on the eyes, after all. And he sings.
Compared to the Kelis-sampling, R&B-obscuring pseudo-dubstep Blake announced himself onto the scene with, Blake is the sound of a personality creating music instead of chopping and slicing others. Where he was a producer, he’s now an artist –even singer-songwriter. Though it sounds like it through the vocoders, the pitch bending and the multitude of other electronic manoeuvres, the love songs that populate the album aren’t samples from other artists, other eras. It’s him singing in that clipped but soulful croon. Where earlier EPs traded in minimal abstractions and woozy club numbers, Blake has actual, traditional songs. The result is something that sits between blue-eyed soul and singer-songwriter pop.
What makes Blake interesting is the way that croon is employed. He sings, sure, but his singing is figurative and essentially does what his samples did in texture and purpose. On The Wilhelm Scream – notably a reimagining/cover of a (very yacht rock) song his father wrote – his voice loops ‘I don’t know about my dreams / I don’t know about my dreaming anymore’. It’s part communication, a world-weary sigh, but more purposefully – the lyrics, like the song don’t progress much beyond that – it ratchets up the song’s gradual build. Three minutes in and the song begins to rattle as if it’s about to launch into orbit; his voice climaxes similarly, gaining extra layers of cavernous reverb as it goes before falling down to the same mumbled sigh as the song returns to earth. Voice for Blake is just another instrument to be played with and manipulated for textural purpose; where he rummaged, through other’s recorded sentiment, he now performs a similarly mechanical process with his own – part human, part machine. On ‘I mind’ his cold tremolo croon is accompanied by a more mechanical, barely-vocal cry that weaves itself into the mix, imitating an oscillating synth riff; on To Care (Like You) helium, goblin-like cries punctuate the nocturnal skitter, reminiscent of the haunted voices that echo through the darkness in Burial’s Untrue. On an album so apparently conventional in many ways, it’s a strange, but neat trick to pull. The move to a broader, more accessible sound doesn’t feel anything like a compromise, rather a new challenge, and he’s very good at it.
Its strongest point – that deconstructive ability to redefine pop – is also a source of weakness. The hypnotic repetition of voice – not quite sample, not quite human; not quite hook, not quite emoting – can jar, and the quality of his songwriting – or, perhaps more accurately his reimagining – sometimes wobbles. Far from a ‘Heartbeats’ type transformation the cover of ‘Limit To Your Love’ isn’t far from the original. Take the sub-bass wobble and the nervy pauses out and you’ve got a typical ‘Live Lounge’ type cover. Both Lindesfarnes immediately sound live Bon Iver; the refinement of the piano vignettes, ‘Give Me My Month’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’, places him not far from Antony Hegarty. Neither are unflattering comparisons and the songs, though some of the weaker cuts, hold their own. They just don’t feel as complete as a result. It’s as if he’s still finding his own voice, literally and figuratively.
A collection of pop songs that seem so familiar and are yet so strange and challenging is a rare thing. Blake may not be the revolutionary leap that changes everything; it’s more evolutionary step than great leap, drawing an ancestry back through Thom Yorke, Bon Iver and the like. That doesn’t make it any less interesting. This album is, afterall, getting airplay on primetime Radio One; being advertised on the underground; and championed in the kind of critic’s polls that tend to play it safe with Adele and Ellie Goulding. Commercially it may not be the coffee table dubstep album that introduces a wider public to genre – if they need introducing at all – but it’s a fine collection of intelligently thought out songs that show considerable promise for someone so young.
James Blake – I Mind