James Blake: Overgrown

james blake, overgrownAt the young age of 24, just a couple years out of university, James Blake is already worrying about the days when his star fades. Though it barely makes any sense at this point in his career, such a dramatic concern isn’t exactly crazy. Over the course of five EPs and a self-titled studio album in 2011, the music community has seen all the stages of Blake’s initial growth. In just three years, Blake has managed to craft a fairly diverse catalogue of music, showing off a range that runs from quirky Aphex Twin-like ambient to Feist-inspired soul. Amid such an artistically chaotic library of music, one does get the feeling that this record is something of a climax for Blake, giving us an opportunity to pin down his identity once and for all. For Blake, it’s a chance to establish an identity that can be permanent, firm, and not constructed merely through hype. And on Overgrown, Blake takes the opportunity wholeheartedly, crafting an album that is a mature, occasionally stunning compromise between the remote regions of his skill set, never sacrificing soul for technical mastery, and instead arranging the two into a harmonious, original style.

On the opening and title track, Blake sets force the mission statement for Overgrown: to not end up as a carcass in the graveyard of artists once designated “the new kings of [insert genre here].” Blake has dealt with such anointment consistently over the past three years, a phenomenon only accelerated by a world full of self-righteous Youtube commenters and blogs that want desperately to create and destroy the next musical wunderkind. “Overgrown” expands on Blake’s theme of lyrical simplicity surrounded by instrumental fireworks. The song unfurls into a dozen directions, and yet there’s still a sense of focus amid the richness and density. It’s dark and intense, but still somehow breathable and penetrable.

In fact, Blake’s greater ability to make songs that are dark and gripping without being claustrophobic may be his biggest stride since his self-titled debut. On “Life Round Here,” Blake opens the song with a keyboard line that is unmistakably clean and precise in the Blake Way, yet still loose and almost playful. The song has a spontaneity unchained by the musician’s penchant for tight musical control. Elsewhere, the mere inclusion of RZA on “Take a Fall for Me” is a big step for Blake, releasing the listener from Blake’s almost painfully delicate vocals and giving the song a dimension that is unexpected and welcome. RZA kills it, asking “What will become of me/if I can’t show my love to thee/there will be none of me.” The layers of sounds make for a song that is both heartbreaking and strangely sexy. In both cases, Blake is working with more confidence and taking more stylistic risks.

Some of the risks taken aren’t as successful or, even worse, need a jolt of risk-driven excitement. “Voyeur” plays around with a bunch of disparate sonic elements, so disparate in fact that the song comes across as disjointed and a bit uncomfortable amid a largely smooth record. “DLM” is clean and natural, and undoubtedly a strong showcase for Blake’s vocal skills. With that said, it shows very little progression from songs of this style on his previous record. It almost feels like a pointless reminder of his vocal skills rather than a song that complements the other pieces around it.

Blake is at his best when he fuses soul with bold electronic ‒ maybe even dubstep-laden ‒ beats. The best example of this is “Retrograde,” which is lyrically impressive and drops into a dense soundscape on the track’s second half. Blake again articulates a sense of sexuality melded with heartbreak, and the results are stunning. “I Am Sold,” the album’s second track, could easily be dull offspring of Thom Yorke’s solo work and Perfume Genius’ brand of raw ballads, but instead the back half of the track is infused with thunderous drums that wake the song up and give it a fearsome darkness. “Digital Lion” falls more in line with Blake’s previous electronic work, but it’s a better dance track than almost anything he’s done previously.

In almost all cases, Blake builds off a certain sound, be it the keyboard line in “Life Round Here” or the soulful cooing at the beginning of “Retrograde.” The songs morph into something larger, richer, and consistently hard to explain or define. The record runs the gamut from soulful to sterile to solemn. Blake’s apparent skill in each style may afford him the permanence he desires, lasting as a musician whose talent across various music realms makes his discography both unclassifiable and altogether original.
Rating: 8.3/10
MP3: James Blake “Retrograde”
Buy: iTunes