Now I can’t pretend to know what cutting edge electronica and dubstep sounds like nowadays, I’ll leave that to the hipsters with a few less years on the clock.
But it seemed to me that the arrival of James Blake’s debut album a couple of years back signalled the emergence of an artist with a very singular and unique musical vision.
His hushed, multi-layered vocals conjured up the intimacy of the first Bon Iver record along with the theatricality of Antony Hegarty. There was a bravery about the minimalism of those beats and arrangements.
Blake’s star has been in the ascendant ever since and he’s gone on to collaborate with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and been given the seal of approval by his heroine, Joni Mitchell.
So there’s a good deal riding on this follow-up. Blake takes the expectations in his stride, refining and distilling the best elements of that debut and polishing up his songwriting craft. The headline news, of course, is the contributions from Brian Eno on Digital Lion and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA on the standout Take A Fall On Me. This is still very much a James Blake record though with his quivering vocals taking centrestage pretty much throughout.
Joni Mitchell was an influence on the opening title track apparently, an introspective analysis on the pros and cons of fame: “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.” It builds to a beautifully swelling middle section. A classic Blake trick of restraint and release that he’s already proved to be the master of.
He’s in full-on tremulous Antony Hegarty mode for I Am Sold, which revisits the debut album’s motif of repeating snatched phrases before piling on the echo and distortion effects. It’s a muted opening pair, but lays out Blake’s introspective stall without compromise.
The pace picks up for Life Round Here, an ode to Blake’s girlfriend, the LA-based Warpaint guitarist Theresa Wayman. Laying bare the neuroses behind trying to keep up a long-distance relationship. Yet again, another repeated motif dominates: “part-time love is the life we live, we’re never done; everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day.”
RZA’s arrival on Take A Fall On Me provides a nice counterpoint, particularly his quirky Anglo-centric lyrics
“I wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid” and “fish and chips and vinegar/With a glass on cold stout or something similar.”
Accept for the refrain: “I need you like I need satisfaction,” it’s a pretty oblique contribution. Another skewed love song to add to the Blake canon then.
You may have already heard the single Retrograde - it made number 10 in Denmark, after all. It’s one of his strongest melodies and part of the middle section of the album that tiptoes up to the edge of the dancefloor. The Eno hook-up on the pulsing almost wholly instrumental Digital Lion features a cut and paste repetition of the title emerging then disappearing into the mix as well as a klaxon. Hands-in-the-air techno, it most certainly is not though. You’d be hard pressed to detect the fingerprints of Eno here though, although it’s unfair to merely expect his trademarks soundscapes on everything he touches. He’s far more than a one-trick pony.
The delicate skeletal piano-led ballad Dim is another low-key delight that doesn’t try too hard.
The slinky house rhythms of Voyeur up the ante once again although by this time you may tire a little of Blake’s constant use of repetitive central vocal lines wandering in and out of the mix. If there’s a flaw here then it’s this dogged determination to pull off the same stylistic trick again and again.
There’s more melancholia and introspection on the Our Love Comes Back which once again melds piano with electronica.
The Big Boi-sampling bonus track Every Day I Ran is a welcome injection of energy on another steadfastly downbeat collection from Blake.
He claims that there is more light and shade this time around, but if that’s so then the more upbeat moments come from outside sources. This may be as divisive as the first album, but it won’t come as such a shock.