Friday, February 4, 2011

Comments on JAMES BLAKE

For those of you who don’t know, James Blake has been tearing up the blogs for about the past year, releasing three very well received EPs as well as a few singles from a new album, slated to come out on the seventh. Since the album leaked more than a month ago, I’ve been dwelling over it for quite some time, and to my despair, I have to say I just don’t get it. James Blake’s EPs, while each is quite different, all thrive on a sort of stifled sorrow. By collecting so-called “deconstructed” sounds into minimalist soundscapes, he has had the ability to make songs that are at once disorienting, heartfelt, and simplistic. Songs like “CMYK” and “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” show his ability to do this with variously different media.

His new self-titled album is as different from his EPs as they were from each other, but despite his propensity for new creative pursuits, I can’t help but think that this album shows the relative loss of his essence, whether through hubris, lazyness, or anything else. The problem seems to be that there is both too much and too little going on. Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream”, for example, rely on the slow build of a few elements, and while starkness can often lead to a larger payoff, the song is so stark that its just plain anticlimactic. At the same time, it relies heavily on Blake’s voice for the conveyance of emotion, and while he isn’t necessarily a bad singer, I can’t help but think that he’s hamming it up a little too much. Instead of relying, as he once did, on an inability to express sadness fully as a means of conveying his sentiment, he relies on the overabundant sadness of his own voice, to his detriment I might add. The Imogen-Heap-esque “Lindesfarne” diptych goes so far as to distort his already timid voice into one that sounds as if its crying, while at the same time, the music backing him up seems at once overdramatic and illfitting, making the whole song into something like a sappy indie movie soundtrack. “To Care (Like You)”, the song that, in structure, probably compares most easily to his earlier work, does so only in the sense that all of the Blakian qualities that we are familiar with, the simplistic percussion, the disembodied yelps, the sighing voices, the generally discordant quality, have all been increased to a relatively unsavory level.

Other songs make me uncomfortable simply because he goes much too far out of his creative wheelhouse, relying on cliches when he really doesn’t seem to know it. “I Never Learnt to Share” similarly uses his voice for most of its emotional execution, while accompanying sounds make parts of the song sound like both an action film trailer and an overenthusiastic Aphex Twin knock off. His love of discord used to subtly color his songs with disorientation, but here it just comes up in all the wrong places, sometimes completely stopping a song in its already slow-moving tracks.

That said, some of his creative exploration really does work, even when it is derivative. “Give Me My Month” is a simple piano tune I might compare to one of Randy Newman’s sadder songs minus the eccentricities. Here you can definitely hear Blake’s off kilter sound being interpreted into a common medium, to great effect. “Measurements” similarly Blake-ifies a subtle and pleasant Gospel sound, reaching a satisfying and complex emotional climax. Lastly, “Unluck” and “Limit to Your Love” do successfully expand his sound without ruining the delicate balance that the other songs on the album can’t seem to get quite right. “Limit” shows Blake in full voice, but rightly subdued in emotion, letting the rumbling percussion and the slow build run the track. These songs are, however, abnormalities. In short, Blake doesn’t seem to know how to expand his sound without ruining it in some way, producing songs that are recognizably James Blake, but just in the wrong proportions. His best songs on this album are, in spirit, most akin to his earlier work: subtle, understated, and complex.

It is, however, important to say that despite my complaints, this album is enjoyable. All of the songs do deliver in one way or another, even if some or most of the components don’t succeed. It is unfortunate that, because of the buildup that this album has had, it is par for the course that its critical response can really only be in the mode of two conclusions: magnificent success or overconfident failure. Because it is neither of these things, I’m pretty confident that this album, which is good, but not great, will most likely get the success treatment. Oh well.

Listen to samples of the album below:

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