Track Review: James Blake – “Retrograde”

[Republic; 2013]

As the proprietor of a scrubbier, less invasive variety of dubstep, the enigmatic James Blake has demonstrated an uncanny talent for overwhelming with next-to-nothingness. The first taster from his sophomore effort Overgrown tramples the withering structures of his self-titled debut and erects something that’s more concrete, both sonically and vocally.

Blake’s unaltered voice–a frail, beautiful device capable of great emotion–lays in the cold for about thirty seconds, humming an exquisitely alien earworm before a simple backbeat fades in. The synths that join shortly thereafter sound strained, as though something is weighing them down. Indeed, there’s a heft to “Retrograde” that seems to suggest Blake is now comfortable being viewed a singer-songwriter as well as a producer. As with Blake’s earlier work, the experience that “Retrograde” offers through speakers is very different from the one it offers through headphones. “Suddenly I’m hip!” he exclaims about halfway through. The interesting thing is how it doesn’t sound the least bit self-congratulatory; rather it seems like Blake is acknowledging the broader musical scene to which he belongs.

Overgrown drops April 8th via Republic.