New Music Tuesday: 'James Blake' by James Blake
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
James Blake creates dance music the way Chuck Palahniuk writes sentences, reducing each part until it becomes elemental: simple and easily understood. It’s a style that sharpens the drama in a story, whether it’s “Fight Club” or Blake’s eponymous debut LP, which trembles with dubstep paranoia and his rich, English voice.
Only 22 years old, few outside of the U.K. had heard of Blake before he released a trio of EPs in 2010 — “The Bells Sketch,” “CMYK” and “Klavierwerke” — that left music bloggers and dubstep fans feverish at their keyboards. The precocious composer’s understanding of minimalist dance patterns also captured the attention of a horde of British music critics, who voted him their runner-up to their Sound Of... poll for 2011, a list indicating the next big thing each year. Previous honorees include Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Florence + The Machine, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 50 Cent and Lady Gaga.
As a dubstep artist, Blake makes all the right moves, or doesn’t depending on how you look at it. His composition lends restraint to dubstep without eschewing the genre’s lexicon of descriptors; cavernous, melancholy and wobble. The aforementioned are all displayed on the album’s opening track “Unluck,” which kick-starts to life with a disconcerting, choppy drum tapping that eventually hisses like a snake full of venom. A lush, understated synthesizer ambles around, occasionally finding center stage and filling it out completely.
Blake’s lyric writing, like his arrangement, is as impressive an exercise in restraint. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” are the only words on “I Never Learnt to Share,” which works as a terse short story with a buzzing synthesizer that phases in and out, haunting him like an indecisive ghost.
A voice as soulful and melodic as Blake’s is nonexistent in the cyber world of laptop musicians. The way the T evaporates from “waterfall” on the Feist cover, “Limit To Your Love,” is so tremendously, unexpectedly English that it impresses the American listener as foreign and sensual, giving Blake a leg up on everyone else who’s ever given dubstep a try. In a sub-genre that typically limits singing (or features other vocalists’ samples), a talent like his is impossible to ignore.
The “waterfall in slow-motion” imagery on “Limit To Your Love” is reinforced by the looped piano sample and Blake’s vocal vibrato, but those are only foreground to the scuzzy house bass warping behind him. That’s where you feel the emotional heft of the sentiment expressed in these songs. “Wilhelms Scream” is the heaviest such track and also one of the blurriest — it sounds like waves of static swirling and crashing on each level of your awareness, leaving you confused and ready to surrender. It’s Blake at his least sure. “Might as well fall in,” he moans.
“Measurements” forges new ground in dubstep, featuring a few different recordings of his voice singing what could be a gospel standard as sung by a schizophrenic church choir. It’s as triumphant as the genre has ever been.
Blake’s unique voice may just be what dubstep needs to push into the mainstream. With any underground movement in music there are sure to be those reluctant of such a force (Geoff Barrow of dubstep pioneers Portishead has already expressed this sentiment on his Twitter) but there’s no taking back “Limit To Your Love,” which peaked at No. 39 on the U.K. album chart nearly a month ago. With a record finally available to the American listening audience, James Blake might just become the first dubstep artist to escape the dank London underground.