Album Review: James Blake – James Blake

For an artist who is only 22 years old, James Blake has already had a lot of digital ink spilled about him. Over the past year, he released three highly acclaimed EPs and a few singles, all of which pales in comparison to his self-titled debut record (released today but building hype since it’s December leak).

From his earliest release, the single “Air & Lack Thereof / Sparing the Horse,” Blake laid down a marker for his sound: R&B-infused post-dubstep with pitchshifted vocals, soothing piano chords and pulsing swells of bass. His multi-layered, surging compositions put him in the company of artists like Mount Kimbie and Untold, on the less dance-oriented end of the spectrum. “The Bells Sketch” is typical of these releases; bits and pieces of the familiar and nostalgic, mechanical chirps and whirls next to processed vocals.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/James-Blake-The-Bells-Sketch.mp3″ text=”James Blake – The Bells Sketch” dl=”0″]

Many of the compositions on his records begin with minimal elements, like a simple piano melody and a two-step beat, before sneakily building into something ominous and claustrophobic. While they start as whispers and suggestions, the songs soon turn into several competing conversations. There’s an uneasiness that is not entirely unpleasant.

That trend continues on James Blake. While pushing against the boundaries of an increasingly characteristic sound, Blake has found a guiding principle in “less is more.” Throughout the record, Blake’s voice is processed and layered into a digital/analog cyborg, often repeating the same lyric. The overall effect is hypnotic and moving, as on “I Never Learnt to Share:” “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them” stays consistent, but the song builds and pulses, morphing their tone and meaning.

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/James-Blake-I-Never-Learnt-To-Share.mp3″ text=”James Blake – I Never Learnt to Share” dl=”0″]

Covering Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” Blake keeps the melody but makes the song his own, adding a thick layer of sub-bass to the piano-driven ballad. It’s a trick he masters on the album; despite how sparse and minimal the songs tend to be, there is a rich low-end that adds a warmth to the predominantly cold compositions. Don’t be fooled – this is a record built for subwoofers, not earbuds.

The second single, “Wilhelms Scream,” is blessed with one of the album’s sweetest vocal melodies. The video for the song perfectly captures the interplay between high and low, foreground and background that Blake tools with here and elsewhere.

James Blake is quickly becoming a singular force in music. The closest match for both his sound and rapid rise would be the XX, another act that makes pure soul music, stripped of excess and focused on bass. And he seems poised to exceed even that lofty standard.

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