James Blake

Album Review: ‘The Colour in Anything’ by James Blake

James Blake has a signature sound, a style that means when you hear the first 10 seconds of most of his tracks you’ll instantly be able to recognise it as him. True, he is not alone in the field of minimalist electronic R&B and pop, though other artists/groups like the xx and Mount Kimbie are always chasing, both vocally and via production also.

Although the deep and aching piano chords, finely used autotune, saw and pulse-based synths, and idiosyncratic percussion remain, it does feel just a bit different from past releases – it’s still minimalist, but his voice is higher in the mix, and it really makes a difference in filling out the tracks just that bit more.

It could be the increased collaboration you hear on the album too – Blake in the past has been very limited on this front, but here Rick Rubin co-produces on various tracks, Bon Iver returns on ‘I Need a Forest Fire’, and Frank Ocean chips in for some writing credits too. Kanye West was reportedly providing a verse on the track ‘Timeless’, but the verse didn’t materialise and the atmosphere of the album changed (trust me, Kanye would be really out of place on this record). Add in his input on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and The Colour in Anything really does represent a shift for the London artist.

The album’s a hefty 17 tracks, and it does take a bit out of you after every listen – it’s much longer than his previous efforts. The transitions are smooth enough though, and there are more than enough new sounds introduced do keep it fresh. Classic James Blake themes are on the album, from missed love, self-doubt, grapples with loneliness and so on – the opening lines to the album are “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me”, as reserved piano chords are played beneath, and Blake recounts miscommunications and love lost. If I’m completely honest, it’s very whiney, and the lyrical content is not consistent across the whole album, but the falsetto-laden singing imbues an extra layer of emotion that allows Blake to get away with it.

The vocal humming melodies return to full effect on the following track, ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’, casting minds back to Blake’s classic song ‘Retrograde’ from previous album Overgrown. Noise slowly fills the sonic landscape as reverb is gradually added to Blake’s voice, and the synth filter is slowly peeled away to provide an enormous crescendo of lament. It definitely helps that it’s lyrically stronger than the opener:

“Giving up is hard to do”

Other lyrical highlights include the solemn request on ‘Waves Know Shores’, “I suggest you love like love’s no loss”, and the imagery provided on single ‘Modern Soul’, “So I swim to you while I’m sleeping// through sage green rivers of England”. The intense sound that opens the track and triggers later on throughout still intrigues me; I have no idea what it is, but it’s a great pairing with the sweeping dives of synths. Although it’s obviously about relationship struggles, the refrain that appears in the middle of the track suggest some kind of unrest and unhappiness with the touring life, with the musical life wrenching him away from friends and family – he sighs “Because of a few songs” over and over before he recounts a split from a partner.

The title track sees Blake get rid of synths and experimental percussion, opting for his voice and the keys to carry the listener through the three-and-a-half minute ballad. The eclectic run up to it may have listeners even somewhat bored as they listen to, the double-tracking in the chorus the only pick-up. Such a thing is very purposeful however, giving space for Blake set up an emotional sucker punch of a track whilst showing off his piano chops. Again, it casts your mind back to another track, Blake’s phenomenal cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’.

Even though it’s a much fuller album than past efforts, it’s still modest – on the closing track Blake opts to get rid of all instruments, and delivers a palate-cleansing acapella, displaying dexterity with the vocoder. Everything and everyone seems to have left him, but he holds some optimism. He closes “Music can’t be everything”, an oddly strange sentiment considering Blake’s past soundscape exploration, but oddly beautiful at the same time. Ghostly and emotional as always, Blake continues to deliver.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.

What we’re listening to (#19) – ‘James Blake’ by James Blake

James Blake – Mercury Prize winner and Grammy nominated electronic/post-dubstep producer, singer-songwriter, and remixer (under the name Harmonix).

After releasing the Klavierwerke EP (German for ‘piano works’) for his second-year assignment at Goldsmiths University, he released his self-titled debut studio album under his own record label ATLAS, supported by A&M Records.

Relying on original samples (i.e. sampling his own vocals rather than other artists), Blake creates an often minimalistic-based yet full sounding atmosphere, his soulful, whispering voice being bent and manipulated to haunting effect.

Opener ‘Unluck’, unsettling and peculiar, shows Blake’s ability to build crescendos to claustrophobic effect, the simple synth that opens the song being enveloped by distortion, backed by an irregular drum beat. His vocals later take centre-stage, being gradually processed like the synthesizer, the wobbly breakdown laid under his pitched vocals, repeating different variations of only six lines to incredible effect.

 

‘The Wilhelm Scream’ follows, a cover of Blake’s father’s ‘Where to Turn’, which is clearly much more acoustically-based than his son’s formulation. Again, a filtered synth opens up the song, a simple drum pattern to back. Again, lyrically, there a few lines, just two verses which are repeated, building with synths which are slowly eaten away with overdrive and waves of ambient noise to powerful effect.

“All that I know is,
I’m falling, falling, falling, falling
Might as well fall in”

Other highlights include a cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love’, based around a masterfully employed sub-bass, a reverb-laden piano, and Blake’s crooning vocals. Removing the optimistic introduction and bridge of the original, this version is a much more heart-wrenching rendition, the crescendo being a patterned bass-pattern over a simple bass-snare groove with an 808-life ride cymbal.

 

The beauty of many of the songs on this album is that Blake can reproduce them to incredible levels of similarities live – this record contains instrumentation and vocals that go well beyond James Blake’s then 22-year-old, so the fact that he can emulate the same sounds live is a great feat that is rare in this decade of music.

Blake’s style can be tiring at some points, most evidenced in ‘I Never Learnt to Share’, there only being one line repeated throughout the whole song, and sometimes it does feel like he’s manipulating and adding effects just for the sake of it, but listening to the double-billed ‘Lindisfarne’ will answer most questions as to why he pursues his chosen stylistic path of music

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.