Album Review: Overgrown by James Blake
by John Cheesman on April 21, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Electronic, Music, R&B / Soul
Artist: James Blake
Release Date: April 9th
RIYL: Flying Lotus, Four Tet, How To Dress Well
James Blake is an artist that has, over the course of his career, become increasingly difficult to categorize. In 2010 he debuted with his The Bells Sketch EP, a tiny and haunting precursor to the type of genre bending electronic music he would continue to publish through 2010 and into 2011. With that first EP as well as the two that followed, CMYK and Klavierwerke, Blake was passionate and active in invading the electronic scene, and by the time he released his first LP in 2011, he had done just that. The sort of glitchy tension that characterized his early releases had earned him a name, and people were starting to catch on that Blake wasn’t just another bedroom producer, but rather a classically trained musician with strong pop sensibilities. By the time his 2011 eponymous LP dropped, Blake had earned himself a name as an important electronic producer and had, whether he meant to or not, created an entire genre (“post-dub”).
With three EPs, two break out singles (“Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream”) and a seminal essay about the faults of dub step culture, James Blake had earned himself a signature presence by the time his first LP was released. That first record showed the earlier explorations of his EPs grow into an album full of razor sharp, spacious production and pressure sealed tension. The type of control Blake demonstrated on James Blake was exciting and new— it sparked a curiosity that required listen after listen. His voice was more present here than on his previous work, and the clarity of his vocals formed a beautifully symbiotic relationship with the depth and space of his production. What made this record truly great, however, was that while this sort of minimalistic tactic was half of what made and characterized the record, the other half was the way Blake could turn around and let a track explode in chaos and intense bass when he chose to. It was, to say again, a game of control.
Just nine months after the release of James Blake came the notably turned down Enough Thunder EP. On this six track piece Blake left a significant amount of his electronic embellishments aside and continued in a trend of shifting his vocals to the center of his tracks. Moments of “We Might Feel Uncensored” and “Not Long Now” retain the characteristic “post-dub” sound of James Blake, but as a whole the EP sees Blake in a transition to a role more closely aligned with singer songwriter than experimental electronic artist. This was an interesting turn, but seemed like a logical one based on his progression. And so with Overgrown, out April 9th, there was an uncertainty and a curiosity for what could come next.
The first single from Blake’s 2013 album, “Retrograde,” was a perfect way to satisfy that curiosity and a perfect prediction of what the new album would hold. From the beginning of the song, the tone is different from anything on his past album. While on James Blake, the tracks seemed to rise from a vacuum, a clean sheet of silence, Retrograde shows Blake experimenting with a more texturized background and a clearer beat than in his past LP. In Blake’s 2011 single, “Limit to Your Love,” the artist used his vocals as a point of tension for the powerful electronic components and heavy bass; in “Retrograde,” the two components work alongside, rather than against, one another and create the same feeling of anxiety. This becomes a theme throughout the album, and it gives Overgrown a distinct place among James Blake records.
Overgrown has been a dense album as I’ve listened over and over. As a whole, it has a sort of non linear momentum that is hard, upon first listen, to track continually from start to finish. The type of razor sharp and tightly controlled moments that made James Blake soar are harder to locate on Overgrown. The unique game of control from the first LP isn’t as clear on the second, and this lends the new album a different tone than his past material. Of course, Overgrown is still undeniably a James Blake album; there is still a great amount of depth and space in the production. Blake still demonstrates a skillful tension between his vocals and his electronics, but the distinction of authority between these two elements isn’t as stark as it was on certain notable moments from James Blake. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Some of Blake’s most fascinating moments have come on this album, and have come directly from the cooperative interaction between vocals and production (see, the chorus of “Retrograde,” the second half of “Voyeurs,” and the melody of “Life Round Here”). At least for now, however, Overgrown hasn’t been as immediate a hit as James Blake was. Maybe I take for granted how much time I’ve spent with Blake’s first album; maybe in a year or so I will look back on Overgrown and not understand what, upon the first few listens, I was missing. For now I’ll just keep listening to the more than enjoyable new material and continue grappling with Blake’s innovative and genre expanding work.