James Blake, The Mercury and the future

Yesterday I heard a pundit talking about who might win the Mercury Prize. He mentioned James Blake in passing, not as a ‘proper’ contender like Bowie, but he said something interesting. Blake’s music could only have been made now, he observed. If you’d heard this music twenty years ago, he said, it’d have sounded like the future.

And that’s the thing. There’s great music all over the place –  Kwes or Goat or the riotous gloaming released by Blackest Ever Black to mention three off the top of my head. Naturally, there’s also a tonne of music that is just repeating what’s been done before, like a legal high with a molecule or two moved around. But something has changed.

I remember Martyn Ware talking about artists looking backwards instead of forwards. Imagine, he said, if Human League had made music that sounded like it came from two decades before – music from the 1950s? They’d have been laughed out of Sheffield. Everyone was looking ahead, using new technology and making sounds that propelled them out of their reality into something more adult, something further ahead: the future. The future was shiny, bleepy, better.

But is anyone making futuristic electronic music now?

No. Because there’s no point. There’s an understanding, even if we haven’t clocked it overtly, that the future is going to be worse than the past, or at least more complicated and probably more difficult and that’s not the easiest thing to turn into a tune. Futurism was about transportation and a belief in eternal growth, not reality. Derrick May and Juan Atkins made electronic music as a spaceship, a transporter, a time-machine that could move them forwards and outwards.

Congratulations to James Blake on his Mercury, and to everyone making music that doesn’t sound like the past or like the an outdated version of future. Forward the Now-ists!

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