There’s a limit to Sach O’s love.
Breathlessly hyped since his debut on wax, James Blake’s ascent through the world of electronic music has been a peculiar one. Nominally a member of the post-dubstep community bringing bassweight to England’s longstanding art pop tradition, he’s so far managed to avoid defining himself by jumping from concept to concept. One minute he’s chopping up R&B vocals, the next his own piano playing, the next his own voice with only his seasick synths and empty spaces providing a semblance of musical unity. For better or for worse, Blake ups the ante considerably on his debut full length, not only pushing his once understated vocals to the forefront, but making them the main attraction. This album could’ve very well been called James Blake Sings!
Less breezy than Mount Kimbie and lighter than Dark Star, Blake’s approach most resembles California’s Baths in its soft-focus wooziness and homespun minimalism. It’s easy to imagine that born 10 years earlier, he’d be recording lo-fi cassette pop rather than tech-step Drum & Bass. Thankfully, Blake’s production continues to be startlingly original and inviting, avoiding any obvious “folk-tronica” trappings by concentrating on new textures and timbre instead of typically pastoral soundscapes. Whereas a lesser artist would be content to slap an acoustic guitar on a beat and call it a day, every sound here feels considered and crafted with clashing fidelities coming together to form something truly unique. This production aesthetic is easily Blake’s strongest suit and the album’s best material pushes it to the front. “To Care (Like You)” marries blues, glitch and bounce and makes it work. “Wilhelm’s Scream” spins around like the best pop and “I Mind” constantly feels like it’s going to topple over into chaos, but somehow retains its lurching, skeletal form. It’s moments like these that justify the fawning press, as he quite simply makes music that doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Still, the album is a bumpy ride that requires a fair amount of patience. Blake has heaps to say musically, but when it comes to his lyrics, he often falls flat on his face. Though I’m sure his songwriting is both honest and earnest, it’s also the kind of sad sack, delicate sap that has me ready to call Tempa T to beat the man up for being so emo. Worse, it can get tedious with lyrics repeated ad nauseum. Rule #1 about graduating to songs kid: have something to say and an interesting way to say it. Then there’s Blake’s tendency to push his vocals a step too far in his quest for soulfulness. When he’s not mechanizing his voice like a Dubstep Wendy Carlos, he’s taking em’ to church with the results once again serving as a reminder that white boys should never, ever go for Nina Simone. These attempts at gospel are the album’s Achilles heel, sounding too precious to be truly convincing. Though it never ruins the album, it makes clear that Blake still has a lot to learn when it comes to separating his good ideas from his bad.
Ultimately however, the full-length debut remains a success, floating by breezily and never overstaying its 40-minute run-time. Blake is at his best when he toughens up his softest influences and at his weakest when he waters down his toughest with his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” standing as the album’s highpoint. With a powerful song, no overwrought vocal effects and his heaviest beat on the album, the singer manages to sound vulnerable while still projecting a steely resolve and it’s the kind of balanced contrast one wishes there were more of here. Still, this is a promising debut for a young musician with a bright future and he can literally go in any direction from here. I just hope he doesn’t choose the Nina Simone fan-appreciation society.