James Blake - James Blake

Every single note here does what it’s supposed to do.

In the history of enthusiastic press releases, the one that went out for James Blake’s highly-anticipated debut has to be one of the most hyperbolic I’ve seen in quite a while, so I’m going to cut to the chase and clear a few things up. This record is not the best thing since sliced bread. For all its forward-thinking vision it does not tick all the boxes, and its arrival is definitely not an event akin to, say, the second coming. On that note, I’d like to borrow a little from ‘The Life Of Brian’, please, because this sums up my thoughts better than anything I could manage: he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very talented young man.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, Blake deserves to be applauded for his debut. Almost unthinkably, it seems set for commercial success (though coming second in the BBC Sound Of 2011 poll probably has more than a little to do with this - and guess who pipped him to the top spot? Jessie J, of all people. No comment.) and if this comes to pass, it will be known as one of the most left-field albums to achieve such things in quite a while. Blake has been labelled as a ‘post-dubstep’ pioneer, and in this age of trying to pigeonhole every new band, it seems almost embarrassing to hear this record and think how far off the mark such a description was.

Its sound is yet another new chapter for Blake, a man who has reinvented himself through each of his EPs. ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ couldn’t be compared to ‘The Bells Sketch’, which sounded nothing like ‘CMYK’, which in turn bore no relation to ‘Klavierwerke’, and the self-titled continues this pattern. A minimalistic approach lies at its centre, proving that space can often mean as much as sound. Everything is clearly defined, and then he delivers the hammer blow with his soulful vocals. The man has a fantastic voice, and no amount of treatment can cover this up. Clean vocals are scarce throughout; indeed, there are only two songs here (the two singles, his Feist cover, ‘Limit To Your Love’, and ‘The Wilhelm Scream’) that shy away from any use of Vocoder or any other technique.

This is a baffling approach to take, especially when those two songs showcase what a good set of pipes he has, but it is nonetheless what he’s done. And it works, in its own peculiar way, as it highlights what this album is about. It’s what happens when human ingenuity and ambition meets machine-like precision, and ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ is the best example of this. Coasting along on one simple, repeated phrase (‘My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, and I don’t blame them’), it it builds over five minutes to a finale that is goosebump-inducing precisely because it shows this meticulous approach has produced music of an exceptionally high standard.

Every single note here does what it’s supposed to do, and despite all the album’s strangeness (it could genuinely be said to create a whole other world for its listeners to get lost in) and the amount of time it needs to have an effect, it’s true to Blake’s philosophy: he makes music, in his own words, ‘for purely personal gain’, and it’s clear that this record was never made for any other purpose. He had a lot to prove, but he made absolutely no compromises. There will not be an album less commercially-inclined released on a major label this year - and it’s doubtful there will be many better, either. Whatever he follows this with will most likely be different again, but one thing is clear: Blake has an extraordinary amount of talent, and the best thing about it all is he’s only 21. There is plenty of room for him to grow and improve yet, but this is a fine place to start, to say the least.

Tags: James Blake, Reviews, Album Reviews

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