James Blake - Overgrown

For all the vast amounts of atmosphere it creates, nothing much happens.

Label: Polydor

Rating: 6

You get the distinct impression that James Blake believes in space. Not in the great dark expanse which hangs overhead, but the thing which no one can now afford in London. Because ‘Overgrown’ sounds vast. The songs on it are gaping, echoing caverns, something that is exaggerated by the fact that Blake often chooses to put very little in them.

If ‘Overgrown’ was a house, yesterday’s pants would not be on the bedroom floor. In that way it accompanies similar ground to The xx’s last record. They’re both albums that are emotional, in a slightly reclusive way. They’re also both albums which are impressively well made. The songs on ‘Overgrown’, even more so than on Blake’s debut, are engineered with an almost inhuman precision. But the problem with it is – and this again parallels ‘Coexist’ – you find yourself admiring it, not falling in love with it.

For all the vast amounts of atmosphere it creates, nothing much happens. The opening ‘Overgrown’ carries Blake’s elegiac voice on a swelling, rising mass of sound, but rather than climaxing in some great pay off, it just dissipates in disappointing fashion. ‘Life Round Here’ is similar. It squelches, sighs and at the three-quarter mark starts to pulsate in such an excited fashion such that you think it’s going to explode. But it never does.

Occasionally something unexpected happens, and those bits are quite good. RZA from the Wu Tang Clan turns up on ‘Take A Fall For Me’, rapping about “a million quid” and “fish, chips and vinegar” like he’s swallowed a little book of British cliches, while disembodied voices drift in and out of earshot. It’s spooky, enigmatic and genuinely interesting. The first single (‘Retrograde’) also does something a bit novel. It takes a couple of listens to settle, but then the nagging synthetic claps and Blake’s Antony Hegarty-aping hums and runs turn it into precisely what you’d always imagined soul would be like if it was performed by replicants. D’Angelo via Asimov’s three laws.

But too much of it doesn’t engage. ‘Digital Lion’, the collaboration with Brian Eno, is strangely uneventful, while the electronic-less ‘DLM’ makes you very glad that miserable, disaffected young men now have a whole litany of digital devices to make their woe-is-me torch songs vaguely interesting - because lord knows they really need it.

When things don’t engage, the album fades into the background. Always subtle, usually elegant and generally very easy to appreciate, but never implanting itself onto your mind with red-hot intent. ‘Overgrown’ demonstrates that for all Blake’s myriad talents as a producer he still isn’t able to carve a great song out of a simple idea.