Image from Ben Millar Cole
My friend came round yesterday while I was playing James Blake’s debut album through the speakers in my front room. “It’s Erykah Badu with white noise,” he said, turning it up.
I’d been looking for the right R&B reference when I posted about this album yesterday but I couldn’t quite find the right one. It wasn’t quite D’Angelo and it wasn’t Curtis Mayfield, but there was definitely a specific R&B influence underneath the 11 songs on the self-titled release. And Badu’s the right reference: Blake’s voice sits over rim shots and slowed down snares on the opening track ‘Unluck’ in a way that reminds me of ‘Rimshot‘. It’s a powerful opening shot, and one that sets the scene beautifully for the rest of the record.
“Wilhelm’s Scream’ is the second single, and it’s more soulful and straightforward than ‘Limit To Your Love’, although straightforward, Blake-style, still means mournful organs hanging halfway on the horizon and submarine-depth bass implosions over circular lyrics that fall in and out of the music, which by the end of the track sounds almost like a gospel house record – albeit in about five million little pieces.
James Blake ‘James Blake’ is a properly good album. It’s strong, cohesive, and powerful. You still want more when you get to the end, and it stands up to repeated listening. I reckon that most of my music friends will like it (though there’ll always be people who either like to hate on whatever’s hot or who who find Blake’s style a touch too emo). But I think my other friends, who work normal jobs and hang out at home with their families, will like it too. But that’s because Blake has brought genuinely interesting, soulful material into his pop songs. Take ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ with it’s repeated lyric ‘My brother and my sister don’t talk to me/ But I don’t blame them’. It’s totally odd and definitely shouldn’t work (one lyric repeated ad infinitum, over restrained CMYK beats isn’t the usual recipe for a memorable pop song) but it does. And that’s one of the marks of actual genius as executed by the likes of Aphex Twin or OutKast; doing things that shouldn’t work… and making them sound brilliant.
The middle section of the album is the Bon Iver patch. I can imagine Justin Vernon listening to consecutive tracks Lindesfarne I and II and going ‘yes! that’s exactly what I meant!’. And it’s the range of this record that makes it so appealing. After riffing on Bon Iver’s themes, we get Blake and his piano, with a short, sweet folk song ‘Give Me My Month’ that Crosby, Stills and Nash would have been perfectly happy with. It sits next to ‘To Care (Like You)’ which you could easily imagine hearing at FWD>>, despite the fact that it’s gospel-tinged, falsetto R&B-goes-techno at minus eight. The album is packed with compressed silences, the kind of sonic drop-out that few people would attempt (there’s at least seven seconds of silence at one point in ‘Limit To Your Love’), and which I know makes radio engineers panic because that silence sounds a hell of a lot like dead air. John Cage would be extremely proud.
Any downsides? None that hit me straight away. It’s cool and clever, emotional not emo and packed full of sophisticated sideways soul and deconstructed songs that still feel bizarrely memorable. It’s not as in your face as ‘CMYK’ and it’s more substantial than the barely-there threads of ‘Klavierwerke’ EP. I guess the only downside is that you’ll eventually be sick of hearing it everywhere, but only in the way that Portishead or Massive Attack were momentarily diminished by being so heavily overplayed. And that’s hardly a bad thing. One lovely record.