Album Review: James Blake – Overgrown

[ATLAS / Republic Records; 2013]

Four years on from his first single “Air & Lack Thereof,” we still don’t know exactly what kind of artist James Blake is turning into. Carving unconventional paths through post-dubstep, R&B, gospel, soul, and a few other genres besides, he has never stayed still long enough to really plant his feet. The constant has been his measured transition from mixing board to microphone. His debut LP, James Blake, took a centrist position on this struggle, focusing on basic refrains and simple verses over wobbly, undernourished electronics. While the mainstream seemed ready to accept James Blake with open arms, its ghostly blueprints were in no position to make this compromise.

Now we’ve arrived at Overgrown, Blake’s second LP. It is the critical juncture in his journey thus far, the one that finally tips the scales. He is now writing fully realized songs, and he has a new pair of weapons in his back pocket: hooks, and tender, honest-to-goodness lyrics. The fundamentals are unchanged, but Overgrown presents itself as a true progression because of Blake’s penmanship. There is an urgency to his statement, an implicit assumption that disposability is a cardinal sin. He cements this premise on the opening lines of the title track: “And I want you to know I took it with me/ That when things are thrown away like they are daily/ Time passes in the constant state,” he sings, his glassy vocals upended by quaking bass. His music remains slow and smooth, vacillating between lulls and drawn-out tension, begging the privilege of arriving in your ear canal at 100 decibels.

Blake has confessed to falling in love while conceiving Overgrown. Although he still openly views himself as something of an outsider (“I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore”), it makes his work a good deal easier to relate to. The wormy vocal hook on “Retrograde” is both otherworldly and intimate; “I Am Sold” brims with contagious anxiety, the flecks of percussion and subbass crystallizing marvelously over Blake’s muffled yawps; “Dlm” is Joni Mitchell-styled blue-eyed balladry, plagued with regret: “Please don’t let me hurt you more,” Blake pleads.

Although this is the deepest he has ventured into singer-songwriter territory, Blake is still squarely in the vanguard of electronica genre-mashing. For such an occasion, look no further than “Take A Fall For Me,” which features a bravura performance by hip-hop icon RZA, depicting a lover’s wedding from the perspective of the paramour. Blake’s pitch-shifted vocal sample starts as a desperate appeal before abruptly descending a into a moment of devastating realization. The feat is all the more impressive because it genuinely sounds like it belongs on the album.

So there’s a certain thematic unity to Overgrown, and Blake gives us any number of lenses to peer through. Although the record’s second half is a little more abstract, and leans closer to Blake’s roots as a producer, there are still flashes of emotional pungency. “Digital Lion,” which features production from ambient pioneer Brian Eno, provides a conduit for experimentation without dissociating itself entirely from the album’s carefully constructed arc. While James Blake felt aloof, even ahuman, Overgrown is packed with feeling, and releases it with the smallest of gestures. While its title suggests excess, this is a nuanced move towards accessibility. Blake isn’t bending over backwards to bridge the gap, he’s just a quick study.