James Blake - Overgrown
Posted on Tuesday, 9 April 2013 | No Comments
So, first question: what the hell even is dubstep these days? Not since emo has a terminology become so overused and then so misused. First describing an offshoot of garage emerging from London and Bristol's nightclubs that pushed a minimalist palette clipped drum sounds and deep bass, then a more catch-all term for all kinds of weird and wonderful electronic and dance music coming out as last decade drew to its end, and now...apparently these days dubstep is a hugely moronic breed of dance music for American frat boys to beat up women to that is largely propagated by a former hardcore singer with ridiculous hair. Eh?
One of the first signs that the generic tag was becoming utterly implausible must have been the rise to prominence a few years back of a talented, idiosyncratic young producer called James Blake. On three EPs with the R&S label in 2010 - the glitchy The Bells Sketch, the immaculate R&B touches of CMYK and the stark, piano-dominated Klavierwerke - he pushed the formula of slow tempoes and overwhelming sub-bass to its limits, using it as a frame for his diverse production experiments. Then things got really strained, when his 2011 debut album shifted course entirely to focus on a futuristic singer-songwriter form where bass hits and drum programming are just one part of the toolkit in bringing Blake's melancholy piano meditations to life. It was as astonishing, hermetically sealed record that maneged to be perfectly of a moment whilst stood at a remove, nodding at trends whilst moving in its own direction. By the time he was covering Joni Mitchell on the Enough Thunder EP, it started to look as though he was ready to turn his back on his dance roots entirely and set to courting the Radio 2 crowd.
After a silence, James Blake reemerges to a very different musical landscape with his second full-length Overgrown. Dubstep is no longer cool, instead an insult to be hurled towards the dumbest productions out there, whilst the introspection and stillness of his songwriting is almost entirely out of synch with the current pop climate. It's to Blake's credit then that the record sees him continuing very much down his own path. Instead of trying to fly the flag for post-dubstep intellectualism though, or ditch those pesky drum machines for an all-out sad piano man bawler, Overgrown attempts to bring the strands of his output thus far together, and whilst the album may very much remain in the song-based milieu of his debut, there's also a far greater use of dance music's technology and aesthetics that results in an even more pronounced hybrid.
There's certainly plenty of moments here where it feels like Blake is trying to drag the fans that first heard him through his Feist cover out onto the dancefloor with him. Digital Lion and Voyeur provide a heady rush within the album's mid-section, hitting about as hard as he's ever likely to: the former warps Blake's gospel-influenced vocal line over an ominous synth wash whose tension finally breaks half way through as a snare rush and horn sound finally puncture the surface, while the latter's clipped jazz piano finds itself layered with cowbell and apreggios until it's hit its full Love Cry potential. There's even an enjoyable, if somewhat baffling, RZA collaboration, which sees the Wu Tang Clan spitting about...fish and chips and Guinness. (Who saw that one coming?)
There's still plenty of gorgeous slow jams abounding the record, but even these boast a greater force than their predecessors on the self-titled album. First single Retrograde starts out in the same haunted, electro-blues ballpark as Unluck (or, yes, Limit To Your Love), but with Blake's declaration that "suddenly I'm hit", we're zoomed into the most impressive and mighty chorus of Blake's young career, a thing of beautiful, breathless power. As for the opening title track, the subtle build of both Blake's vocals and the slowly assembling backing track sets the stage for an intimate but dramatic surge.
Whilst silence and blankness remain vital tools within Blake's songwriting, Overgrown displays a far fuller, more confident sound that blurs the distinction between the 'electronic ones' and the 'piano ones' on his debut into a far deeper, more unified sound. As a whole, Overgrown might not posess the same dramatic impact and emotional heft as its predecessor - there's nothing here as intense as I Never Learnt To Share's high-end pyrotechnics - but the advances it makes are largely worth it. It's a bold, single-minded record that proves how strange a presence he is within the current pop landscape, one that, if not quite the finished product, still marks a new stage in Blake's sonic alchemies. Even if it is to be a stepping stone in his evolution, it's still a stunning and immersive listen whose evolutionary nature suggests at further triumphs to come. And thank goodness he didn't spoil it with that hideous original cover.