Available on: Atlas / Republic LP
It’s difficult to say precisely why James Blake’s 2011 debut album felt like such a damp squib. In some respects it was a remarkably original and challenging record, and you certainly couldn’t accuse Blake of having bowed to commercial pressures, in spite of the tidal wave of hype upon which the album arrived. His was a daringly sparse, abstract form of electronic pop music, standing apart even from those it was most often compared to – Jamie Woon, Mount Kimbie – in its unrelenting strangeness.
The problem, perhaps, was that the content of Blake’s songs didn’t live up to the bold ambition implied their form. Often, in fact, they sounded like half-songs, skeletal place-markers for some fuller arrangement yet to come. Added to which the record felt oddly void of personality. Sure, Blake’s voice was a permanent fixture, but rarely as the central protagonist so much as just another textural detail, outlining vague half-melodies, or multi-tracked and clustered together in rudderless wisps of autotune. Rather than some attempt at a radically post-human pop, this too often felt like cowardice; studio processing as a concealer for a lack of conviction, a lack of expressive weight, or simply a lack of ideas.
It is more difficult to level these criticisms at the album’s follow-up, Overgrown. More difficult, but not impossible. It may well still be fascination, more than affection, that brings you back to these songs. You may find yourself pondering the strange way in which they hang together, the certain clotted quality to Blake’s arrangements that makes them jostle and lurch rather than smoothly unfold. You may be puzzled by Blake’s odd emotional tenor, somewhere between bedroom confessional and anaesthetised whimper – one that many, understandably, find unbearable, though it certainly has its charms.
But even so there’s no denying that Blake has come on leaps and bounds in the past two years. The opening one-two of the title track and ‘I Am Sold’, their respective piano chords and sparse percussion bathed in luxurious reverb rather than suspended in a dry vacuum, instantly herald a richer, fuller record. Both, in their 140bpm halftime, hark back to the producer’s early obsession with DMZ, and both meander in a typically Blake manner; but where before they might have sputtered meekly to a halt after a few minutes, here they navigate towards satisfying climaxes, exuding fresh confidence and purpose.
Blake’s voice, too, has improved. His blue-eyed soul croon has always been more cottage cheese than pungent camembert: lumpy, slightly watery, unmistakably white. But at points here he achieves a newfound expressive force – particularly in lead single ‘Retrograde’, perhaps the strongest pop song Blake has written and one of the album’s highlights. Elsewhere, too, Blake seems to have his sights set on the wider pop world: ‘Life Round Here’ bears shades of Timbaland’s best work, while RZA’s appearance on ‘Take A Fall For Me’ isn’t anything like the awkward non-sequitur one might have expected. Of course, even at its most strident Blake’s music is far too fiddly for major pop success, and he thrives equally on more intimate moments, particularly winsome closer ‘Our Love Comes Back’.
Many of these tracks are framed by sparse steppers’ rhythms and a modest subbass throb, and even where dub isn’t overtly referenced it’s arguably the defining influence on this album. For all the newfound confidence and scope of these songs, they are still best viewed as dub versions of themselves: inversions of pop forms trading in negative space and decay, implication rather than exposition. The urge to deconstruct has always been an instinct of Blake’s – one that can border on self-sabotage – and at times it can become an obstacle to enjoyment, as in the mildly aimless Brian Eno collaboration ‘Digital Lion’, or disjointed Joni Mitchell-into-gospel hybrid ‘DLM’. As such you could argue, as before, that Blake still has a way to go before his execution matches up to the boldness of his ideas. But Overgrown is a heartening step in the right direction, and reassurance that Blake’s talents are far from on the wane.