James Blake doesn’t know about his dreamin’ anymore. On his brief but wondrous first LP there are few of the realized fantasies to which the dubstep world became privy on his past EPs, including (and most directly missing) the nearly academic experimental flavor of The Bells Sketch. Instead, James Blake skips much of the wizardry and strips further down, replacing where what once were samples with Blake’s own yearningly boyish voice. This tactic, scantily wrapped in minimalism and deployed as-preview in his year end cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” is exactly what we find with consistence throughout the album For the most part it’s a bummer, a broken-down one at that. But through all Blake’s cries, he’s always very sweet. There’s never a good question of his deft revisions to bass music. It’s fitting that the buzz around him has been, since the arrival of his emotive brand of dubstep, perhaps shared with scene mates Mount Kimbie, very fitting. On CMYK and Klavierwerke he tackled his own sound from different, opposing angles: He brings us now to a pop world, a haunted world, a future world. And even when he goes hard, rumbling your woofer, he doesn’t lapse into formula. Speaking of woofer-rumbling, it goes without saying that Blake had us all, if at least for this album, when we heard the Jurassic Park water-surface-trembling-in-a-cup bass line on “Limit To Your Love.” Right?
Blake lets his love of quiet make his tracks run nearly acapella at times. He takes heavily to the piano-backed style of Klavierwerke, backed by Auto-Tune and Imogen Heap-scaled harmonies. His gospel sound is that of a tender and hip, unassuming ladykiller. He practically guarantees future promise of soundtrack placement on an episode of whatever is teen-popular right now. It isn’t until “I Never Learnt To Share” that Blake gets very interesting for the dubstep crowd. He masters the squarish Ikonika bassline and makes threefold of the sonic space in your headphones. It’s clear, in “Linedesfarne” I and II that Blake is the tangible dubstep innovator these days. He shows us now that he’s into this scene, but he’s into making music with pop aspirations. Furthermore, he’s human beyond Burial’s no-show ghostliness, accessible beyond Shackleton’s tricky tribal rattling, and arty to some degree beyond the legions of wild-card two-steppers that pound out YouTube videos for every Fruity Loops atmosphere-kick-snare-drop combination possible. Here, Blake often veers from the indie-cred of his EPs to become more of an “artist” more properly categorized as “electronic” and far less a player enmeshed in a scene. In fact he often sounds as though he’s channeled Bon Iver, up in the woods, ready to guest star on the next bout of Kanye West maximalist madness.
James Blake reaches its highs very often. It’s soulful, gospel sentiments are very pithy, but they’re the sort of earnestness that works over time. In some cases, I’ll wager, over very little time. He keeps his thoughts very brief, with few tracks tumbling over four minutes. His brevity compliments his spare arrangements. In “Give Me My Month” we’re given a short, piano-treated piece, more of Blake’s thoughts pass by; it’s dreamy and wistful, and it ends with “To Care (Like You),” which picks up with the same pace, and the same key, and the same quiet. Only seconds in, Blake’s thick sine wave bass arrives underneath the arrangement. His voice turns alien. A dubstep rhythm slinks in, unassuming. Blake’s adept at showing us his highs without showing them off. He falters only because he’s shown us too much in the past. This album does what it seeks to do extremely well, a success by the metric of any critic. But it does not do many of the things we’ve heard in the past. James Blake becomes too careful to rely on a single sound-design palette. Things get heated toward the end: “I Mind” nearly breaks into full arrangement, sputtering through samples of white noise and dancing on a rickety Shackleton-lite scaffold. It’s an expert track that does wonders for Blake’s ability. But he’s too quick to venture off and away. The album closes with a cloned Blake singing polyphonically on “Measurements,” returning again to the soulful rubric heard often, elsewhere in the work.
It would be difficult to list enough reasons to fault Blake dearly for this LP. He achieves a lot with a little. He never gives us filler. He continues to innovate. He has provided us with a great album, one that is a sure sign his velocity has not been slowed.