After a trio of rich and varied EP’s in 2010, which were all lumped under the banner of dubstep, the young and talented James Blake has released his debut full-length on a big major label. For those who had their hopes pinned on Blake producing the definitive instrumental dubstep masterpiece of the year, you may want to stop reading this right now, because what Blake has created instead is a soulful and strange collection of emotional almost-pop songs. Hints at dubstep and techno and darkness swirl along the edges of this album, but at its heart Blake’s debut attempts to go much further than just making you want to shake your booty in a dark club, it attempts to tap into your own emotions and make you reflect.
Simply put the album is an exercise in restraint, and a new avenue for Blake to explore emotions not just through rhythm but also through his own voice. We were given a taste of this late last fall as Blake’s cover of “Limit to your Love” began to pop up on blogs and music sites, and damn the kid could sing! And what sparse piano! And wow that bass wobble! Blake has truly reworked the song in his own style, while still sticking very close to Feist’s original, and the result is beautiful.
Every track on the album features Blake’s voice in the front of the mix, either clean or digitally enhanced by vocoder. Second track “Wilhelm’s Scream” is the song that will catch the listener first, as Blake uses a minimal beat and synth line to pull you in. He uses the word “falling” over and over in the track, and what’s interesting is the production creates the sensation of falling, as it slowly builds and layers itself into a wall of distortion and sensation. It’s a brilliant song that had me floored upon first listen.
The following tracks “I Never Learnt to Share” and “Lindesfarne I/II” are a bit more of a slow burn, yet once they seep into your consciousness, you’ll be craving the off-time bassline drops in “I Never Learnt to Share” and the guitar/vocal melody of “Lindesfarne II”. The opening section of “Lindesfarne I”, recalls Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” and builds into a gentle folk song. The stripped down piano-based tracks “Give me my Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” bring to mind both Coldplay and Bon Iver.
Who woulda thunk that James Blake would be compared to Bon Iver? And yet, overall the album totally works. Penultimate track “I Mind” finds Blake showing up his pals Mount Kimbie at their own game, and making it seem effortless. If there was one thing that was a bit disappointing about Mount Kimbie’s own debut full-length last year, was that it was simply more of the same, and arguably not as exciting as their earlier attempts at post-dubstep grandeur. Yet, one will never be able to say this about Blake who has been evolving and tweaking and growing exponentially with each release. And he’s only 22(!) Expect much more from this young producer, and check out this album, because it’s the year’s most interesting release to date.