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Record Review: James Blake

Arts & Culture | February 15, 2011

Music is about formula. In almost every pop song, and even in most independent stuff, the payoff comes from having your expectations fulfilled. We have certain culturally ingrained ideas about what constitutes melody and beat, and music succeeds by tickling the receptors primed for that enjoyment. Good music will play with your expectations slightly, delaying a tonal resolution or switching up a drum cadence to postpone the gratification, which makes it all the more worthwhile when you finally get there. And, rarely, really great music throws those expectations out the window, completely garbling the equation in ways that make you go, “Whoa, how did s/he even think of that?”

James Blake, a 22-year-old contemporary music student at London’s Goldsmiths University, is a great musician. And I mean really great. Over the past year, he has released three EPs that have made many critics’ “Best of 2010” lists. Heavily influenced by the thriving London dubstep scene, for which he has become the whiz-kid poster boy, Blake creates gorgeous collages of scuzzed-out electronic blips, cutup vocal croons, and driving, glitchy beats. His songs are so expansively layered it often takes upwards of 10 listens to even get a sense of all the crazy shit that’s going on beneath the surface. In a musical climate defined by immediate gratification, Blake offers up some delicately wrapped gems that reveal themselves slowly and beautifully.

Last Tuesday, his eponymous debut LP dropped digitally on iTunes. You need to purchase this album. In most cases, to call something “genre-defying” in a review is a copout. It’s like describing a movie, or a book, or whatever, as a “tour de force,” which basically stands for, “there are some emotional things going on in this piece of art, but I don’t really know how to talk about them, which is technically my job, but hey, this phrase feels French and it’s in italics so let’s just move on.” That said, this album is genre-defying. It is a tour de force. It is, simply put, the best thing I have heard in a long time. Given his stature in the dubstep world, Blake could have just made a really good dubstep album and called it a day. Instead, he’s produced something that sounds like a collaboration between mid-20th century soul piano ballads, Bon Iver, and a self-conscious computer high on acid.

“Unluck,” the album’s opener, starts with a slow, muffled synth progression, interspersed with static hiccups and high hat clicks. After about 30 seconds, you can still imagine a normal dubstep jam emerging from this quiet opening. Then, Blake’s vocals drop in, so sweetly powerful they might as well be dripping. Last April, in an interview with Pitchfork, Blake described playing piano and singing as his “ultimate calling.” Clearly that desire is at work on this album, which comes as close to uniting pop vocal melodies with dubstep beats as this reviewer imagines possible. These are complicated, deeply organized songs, so lush and vibrant that they almost feel like living organisms.

On “I Never Learnt to Share,” Blake repeats the same line over and over: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them.” Each repetition adds another vocal layer, eventually culminating in a synth-organ resolution that can only be described as fucking triumphant. Repetition is big here, and many of these songs are like character sketches that toy and fiddle with the same small melodic idea, expanding and contracting its potential expressions. On the soon-to-be single “Limit to Your Love,” a Feist cover that improves so vastly on the original it’s not even fair, Blake’s vocals and piano are showcased in their purest form. Just as you’re getting comfortable with the idea of a normal pop song, the music goes silent for a full four seconds, and reenters with a bass so wobbly and sparse it could have been sampled from a hearing examination. The vocals now sound like they’re coming from inside your own head—“There’s a limit to your care, so carelessly there”—and it’s clear that Blake is doing something special. Generally speaking, songs that communicate such real, tangible emotional states look you straight in the eye; they hit you over the head. Blake’s songs come at you sideways, out of the periphery of your gaze, until all of a sudden you’re surrounded and you don’t know how it happened.