The post-dubstep poster boy has left a trail of personalities since his late ’00s emergence: dance producer, downbeat balladeer, and more recently pop star ghostwriter. On his third album he finally finds his true voice, writes Tayyab Amin.
Say James Blake’s name into a mirror five times and you can’t be sure which one will appear – the pianist with the mumbled falsetto, the inadvertent figurehead of ‘post-dubstep’, or the songwriter wanted by everyone from Frank Ocean to Beyoncé.
Since his early EPs, pivotal releases on Hessle Audio, Hemlock and R&S that helped spawn an amorphous dubstep sound, and his first album, propelled by a sub-bass retooling of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’, the British singer, songwriter and producer’s influence has been felt across the spectrum. From his impact on countless bedroom producers to world-beaters like Drake and Kanye West, and particularly through his alliance with the hip-hop’s other in-demand indie voice, Justin Vernon, Blake has been an unassuming Forrest Gump: ever-present at musical flash points while his own quest for emotional resolution continues.
Yet his own collaborations, with RZA and Chance The Rapper on tracks from 2013’s Mercury Prize-winning Overgrown, have felt awkward more than anything. His most acclaimed music has struck a balance between electronic production and his singer-songwriter tendencies, a formula perfected on his debut album with ‘Unluck’ and ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ and later expanded on Overgrown’s ‘Retrograde’. But since his fatefully self-titled debut, it’s as if Blake has been pushed and pulled between these different perceptions and dismissals of his music, denied his multiplicity both by others and himself.
“Blake has never howled so triumphantly as on this record”
On his third album, The Colour In Anything, Blake is more like himself than ever before. Talking to Pitchfork recently, he explained how his earlier music only shared certain parts of his character, exacerbating his negativity. He’s not the same James Blake anymore. This time there’s an assuredness to match his delicacy, like first encountering Gandalf the White in the forest, recovered from his eternal falling, falling, falling. For Blake, the colour in anything is love. The other major interview around the album highlighted how his newfound happiness and inspiration hinge on his unnamed, unsung partner. The love he explores through his music is complex, its facets numerous. Every track explores a different sentiment, making what was already an unnerving prospect, with its 76-minute duration, into a sprawling, emotionally exhausting anthology of intimacy.
While working on the album, Blake often began writing songs at the piano, a process that becomes evident over the course of the 17 tracks. The title track is solely piano, opening with wistful metaphors about British weather before Blake wells up: “On your island, there’s no weather warning / There’s no sudden showers / There’s no certain powers, no / All I wanted was to carry you for aching.” The teary-eyed resignation that follows is matched by the consolations of the piano and Blake’s own layered harmonies. Downcast humour is also present on ‘Put That Away And Talk To Me’, titled with a wink and a smirk that’s sure to elicit mixed reactions. The song turns out to be one of Blake’s most sincere pieces of writing as he confronts a version of himself that he no longer knows, a recluse hidden behind a cloud of weed who runs away from self-expression, as he told interviewers recently. “Could you tell me about the early days?” flickers the pitched-up sample, a spark through the haze that registers Blake’s message. Spurts of dazzling synths close the track, a nod to the textures on his first album, channelling cold turkey-induced delirium.
‘Put That Away And Talk To Me’ is one of a few occasions when his love is directed towards his own craft and self, but he’s largely concerned with his romantic life. ‘Radio Silence’ is a Bill Withers-influenced lament to a lost connection, with Blake still reeling from the shock of love’s absence, intensifying in an ear-ringing climax. ‘Modern Soul’ sees him unwilling to compromise his love, hesitant to make an inevitable, agonizing choice; the calls of “I want it to be over” are rueful, and once again the piano is the shoulder Blake leans on.
He also finds himself chasing love with reckless abandon at various points. Channeling Donny Hathaway, ‘Love Me In Whatever Way’ tries to reach out as his lover’s hand seems to shrink away. ‘Choose Me’ is one of the record’s strongest points, as production, lyrics and performance coalesce into a monumental declaration of love; voices sing in unison from the start as Blake refuses to comprehend anything less than reciprocation: “You don’t weigh me down like you think you do / I’m not looking to hold you down.” His vocals are staggering, aching in devotion, while the instrumental is scarred with unbearable anticipation. On ‘Two Men Down’, he vividly reflects on unreciprocated love: “Oh what a day I chose for you / To tell you that I loved you / You know you sounded like knuckles that never cracked.” The knocking percussion, stormy swathes of synths, dog barks and acoustic frets start to disintegrate as it sinks in: “I’m dealing with a wave crash.”
‘I Hope My Life’ and ‘Timeless’ bring to mind Blake’s earlier works, refracting half-sentences through swirling electronic production, while the Bon Iver-featuring ‘I Need A Forest Fire’ overcomes all the moping to find a resolution; it’s the most redemptive song on a gospel-indebted record that never deals with faith.
Despite its length, most moments on The Colour in Anything matter, so long as you give them the space and time, with just one or two tracks, like the sparse piano ballad ‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r.’, which soon become skippable. Though it would be hard to share the listening experience with others, the album never becomes defined by its qualities of isolation and loneliness. Even the most delicate songs, like ‘Waves Know Shores’ and ‘Meet You In The Maze’, have the power to pin you to your seat, numbing the buzz of the city around you.
Blake has never howled so triumphantly as on this record. He’s no longer subdued; each mumble is a choice rather than a hesitation. There’s fearlessness in his honesty to himself, the kind that can help you face your own unhealed wounds. It’s a quiet, personal sort of power from an artist who has always spoken to so many different people through his own multiplicity of voices.