By Brian Akers
James Blake, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter from London, has never been one to follow the rules. Ever since he broke onto the English electronic scene with his first single in 2009, “Air & Lack Thereof”, he has proven time and time again his resilience in the face of passing fads and pressure of conformity. His sound has never fit into the dubstep genre where he was placed: he was only put there because no one knew where to put him. His songs were always to slow, his sounds too ambient, his tone too dark. There was nowhere for him to go, but he continued to push on, eventually carving out an incredibly unique, and arguably revolutionary new sound in the world of electronica.
His 2010 debut record, James Blake, was this new artists first experimentation with the finer aspects of songwriting, as he began building songs thematic and lyrical structure instead of sonic experiments and new ideas for the keyboards and beats that he was building. Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Give Me My Month” showed his inner passion to be a songwriter instead of just a sonic architect, though he retained his electronica and dance influenced sound throughout the record with the repetitive build of “I Never Learnt to Share” and the beautiful chaos of “I Mind”. Now, on his newest record, 2013’s Overgrown, Blake delves even deeper into his abilities as a songwriter, pushing the limits of the word, and himself.
On first listen, Overgrown may seem like a safe record. Blake is not the same young man who was building songs and sounds in his bedroom in 2009. He is a man who has begun to embrace who he wants to be, not who he needed to be. The songs beats are not as complex as they were, and he spends the vast majority of the record focusing on the sound of his voice, which has been trained and groomed into a warm, soulful, but pained croon. He doesn’t show off with insane vocal acrobatics, because he doesn’t need to. His abilities and his emotions give all that they need. He has embraced the emotional side of the music he wants to make, and instead of building his instrumentals solely for the sound of them, he is building them to accentuate and elevate what he is singing. On “Retrograde”, as his voice raises and the emotional stakes come forth when he sings “Suddenly I’m hip/Is this the darkness of the dawn”, pained, strained synthesizers build and suddenly overshadow his soulful musings, almost seeming as though they are trying to push him back. It is a moment of emotional catharsis and sonic interplay that Blake has nearly perfected throughout the record. The beats work hand in hand with his vocals, and they compliment each other and work together, as his jazz and dance influenced rhythms fight with and against his bluesy, soulful voice.
He has not abandoned his influences, though. The production, though clean, and the instrumentals, though simplified, both still ring of the past, as he builds sounds that are both sharply rhythmic and ominously ambient. Blake is not a man to leave behind what came before, and he continues experimenting with the electronica that started him with “Digital Lion”, a standout track on the album with harkens back most clearly to his early days. It meanders, shifting itself so often that it becomes a giant amalgamation of sound and voice. He builds the song with sounds, not with structures. The driving, rhythmic breakdown of the track becomes a statement for who he was, and an opportunity to move forward for who he is.
James Blake is not a young man with inspirations anymore; he is a young man who is inspired. Even as he has begun to settle into being a songwriter, he will refuse to conform to any rules set around him. Blake will write his lyrics and build his songs, and he will continue to do it in whatever way he pleases. This record is just him stretching his muscles, giving us a hint at what may come next.