James Blake - Universal Republic
FILTER Grade: 90%
By Dom Sinacola on March 14, 2011
At the impressionable age of 21, electronic pop’s popular neophyte has already laid out a lifetime of sonic tangents—without so much as a proper full-length. 2010, as far as introductions go, announced a new talent fully realized. Blake’s three EPs—the broken Bells Sketch; the re-imagined gospel and ’90s R&B of CMYK; and piano ballads plaintive and puréed for Klavierwerke—served as his id, ego and superego, respectively, each demonstrating a deeply ingrained part of his nascent image. And like any psychological apparatus, the EPs invested heavily in each other, balancing one’s indulgence with, say, another’s minimalism, or redefining one’s use of noise by emphasizing another’s lack thereof.
So when “Limit to Your Love,” the first single from the London-born Blake’s self-titled, debut full-length, emerged in the wake of his Freudian bloodletting, it seemed as if the musician of many moods had, not a year into his well-publicized existence, concocted the perfect alloy of his musical mettle. “Love,” a take on the original by Feist, is electronic pop shaved to the bone: Simply Blake’s effortlessly maroon voice, a few tastefully placed piano chords and a devastating bass drop—like Mariana Trench deep, like the foundations of sound shaking at the hilt deep. Feist’s song is much too small to fit Blake’s needs, so he inflates it, tests the integrity of its skin and, tensed, reveals its loneliness and regret more broadly than Feist ever intended.
Smack dab in the middle of James Blake, “Love” represents how athletically Blake has whittled down his methods to accommodate the core of his songs—that core being his voice, still as pitch-shifted and warped as before, but now essential to each song. Opener “Unluck” is ambient not in how it defines whatever space it inhabits, but in how it creates that space, erecting totemic drums, mortaring with clean, pulsing synth and then dropping the heartbroken Blake right in the middle of that empty room. He must be heartbroken, he must be curled up in the fetal position on the floor, so wrenched apart at the seams does he sound. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them,” he croons on the eviscerating “I Never Learnt to Share.” Spartan sadness for spartan spaces.
James Blake isn’t groundbreaking, not exactly; “Lindesfarne I” and “Lindesfarne II” are like a distilled Bon Iver. No surprise Blake is cribbing liberally from both his dubstep roots and a host of contemporary trends: Auto-Tune, IDM, minimal techno—even chillwave. But these he synthesizes to their most empirical bits, revealing the building blocks of those styles to elegantly assemble his own building blocks of a personal, distinct production style.
Last year, Flying Lotus—a similarly genre-stomping electronic artist—released his breakthrough Cosmogramma and declared that he was finally able to make the music he’d always wanted to make. His talent, ladies and gentlemen, had caught up with his imagination. James Blake is that kind of album for its creator. With not a sound wasted, James Blake is everything we wanted James Blake to make.