Album Review: James Blake – Before EP

[UMG; 2020]

Last Friday, October 16, James Blake played his latest EP, Before, to a stage devoid of anything but a few strobe lights, which reflected evenly off the empty dancefloor. His first Boiler Room appearance since 2013, he opened with the new “Do You Ever”, immediately filling the hollow room with bittersweet keys. It was an eerie moment, one which the multi-instrumentalist and dubstep lover had most certainly planned out. We were unsure of what Blake intended – did he want us to dance? Or did he want us to just sit back and absorb the soundscape? These two temptations are in constant battle while listening to Blake’s music, and this intricate quality features perhaps more heavily than ever on Before.

Blake attempts some ambitious things on this EP, and executes them brilliantly. It’s a collection of songs which finds Blake paying tribute to his eclectic electronic roots while embracing new ideas. Jazzy transitions and keys are a central element, something which Blake has not explored before in great depth. Hot off his cover of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed”, there are also hints of gospel dotted around this EP, again showing Blake’s dynamism.

On the title track, “Before”, warm synths develop throughout, stitching the Burial-esque percussion with Blake’s truly heartfelt vocal performance. It’s a song, as he describes it, about the joy of relationships and community, things which have come to light more than ever before during these times. “I Keep Calling” is reminiscent of his 2010 breakout track “CMYK”, albeit far less dizzying and wild. The new track features expertly-cut vocal chops layered with soft keys, working together brilliantly.

Throughout Before, Blake strikes the perfect balance between his production and vocals – neither one overpowers the other and are both equally important in making the record what it is. It’s important, because Blake’s lyrics are some of the most introspective and uplifting he’s written – on the final track “Summer of Now”, he contemplates his past relationships, but comes to the conclusion he will focus on the “summer of now”, rather that of 2015.

Blake said of this release that it is “a yearning for dancefloor elation”. It’s a simple message, and this EP goes so far beyond it.