What a great couple of weeks it’s been for music. Some of music’s big hitters have recently released new albums and I couldn’t be happier; Lemonade, Views, Konnichiwa and now The Colour in Anything from one of Britain’s most acclaimed musical genius’(I’m writing this a bit late and in the interim we’ve also had Colouring Book, A Moon Shaped Pool and 99.99%). On 6 May 2016, three years after the release of his sophomore album Overgrown, we were blessed with a new project. Listening to new James Blake reminds me of why I absolutely adore listening to James Blake.
What is inescapable about his music is its stunning ability to evoke emotions in you that you never knew existed – or to re-awaken those repressed feelings we all to often bury within ourselves in a bid to ignore. Blake has come a long way since CMYK – the glitchy Kelis-sampling ‘future garage’ track of 2010 that got us thinking about printer ink acronyms, (no…just me?) and has grown into a pioneering innovator of the British music scene. Is it the irresistible melancholy that makes you want to cry out of happiness and sadness at the same time or the seamless marriage of minimal piano with unmistakable sub-bass and electronic synths that push Blake into a league of his own, streets ahead of some of his contemporaries? How has Blake managed to make sad music sounds so good – again?
It’s not an easy listen. And it’s not a quick listen either. Coming in at 76 minutes, it’s a real sit down and listen listen kind of record. I could even go so far as to describe it as draining. Such intensity produced by the intricate layering of sounds and vocals are quite a lot for the ear to take in and really process. It’s not an album you can just have on in the background and get the general gist or thought processes behind each track. It’s a body of work to fully immerse yourself in and appreciate as a listening experience as a whole.
If we’re really clinical about how we listen to this album, it is possible to separate Blake’s music into two distinct categories. Exploratory, innovative and forward thinking vs classical, cathartic and/or contemplative. Yet, these two sides never appear to be fighting against each other. No, they work together and complement each other. This gives the album a complexity which prevents it becoming stale or samey. Put That Away and Talk to Me and Noise Above Our Heads are very ‘electronic producery’ type tracks; they nod to Blake’s first eponymous album, which was experimental and made heavy use of auto-tuned vocal manipulation, and chopped & screwed composition to produce those artificial, yet intriguing sounds we have come to know and love of Blake.
On the flip side in f.o.r.e.v.e.r. Blake laments “While you were away there was nothing to see […]While you were away I started loving you”. These forlorn observations and the repetition of “and I noticed I can still ghost the streets” give us insight into Blake’s thought processes going round and round trying to piece together the multiple sensations that provided the content for the track; it displays the not-so-pretty depths in which Blake has reached for to create this body of work. Carefully controlled vocals are something Blake has come to master and are ever-present in this song and throughout the album. His voice weaves between almost inaudible sounds to cathartic, louder cries that are emotive to say the least, conjuring up both sympathy and empathy within the listener.
We know that Blake has always loved marrying different genres together and I’ve already mentioned his sample of Kelis’ Caught Out There in CMYK. Blake continues to show his love for US R&B/Hip-hop music in his sample of the distinctive electric guitar hook of 50 Cent’s 21 Questions (which was a sample in itself of Barry White’s It’s Only Love Doing It’s Thing) in the track Timeless in a way that gives it an air of broody introspection I never thought a 50 Cent sample could have which goes to show how Blake’s vast knowledge of a number of musical styles impacts greatly on his versatility and his ability to use a hook we might associate with the explicitness of ‘gangsta Hip-Hop’ and use it within his extremely self-aware emotional outpour. Side note: another of my favourite producers – Arma – has also sampled these same two tracks in a completely different way which just goes to show how different one sound can really be interpreted through different producers.
I’ll end on what is my favourite track from the album: I Need A Forest Fire Ft. Bon Iver. I don’t know how the two voices blend together so bloody well but the result is magical. The pervading woe and sorrow of the track is full of open space and conjures up images of a crisp spring morning. The opening repetition of tape recording-style vocals which persist throughout, set the premise of an unremitting cycle of fragile despair, as the duo “request another dream” to numb the persistent despondency they’re feeling. It is self-indulgent and it nearly brings me to tears. And this is what I love.
Blake has created an introspective masterpiece that transcends boundaries of genre. Despite setting the standards of his music incredibly high from the get-go, he continues to raise the bar and stun us with an incredibly well-formed and beautiful piece. I would say that Blake will struggle to get any better but I know that he will, so I’ll just keep digesting this album until he’s ready to bless us with more!