The problem with many of James Blake’s contemporaries (electronic musicians and songwriters alike) is a lack of character. Producer and singer-songwriter Blake is able to pair his electronic musings with years of jazz and classical piano training, drawing influence anywhere from Errol Garner to Drake. On his new record, “Overgrown,” Blake uses electronic sounds more as a palette than a template. He seamlessly blends the easily tired formula of the pianist-singer with the increasingly tiring electronic artist into songs both carefully crafted and impassioned.
On opener and title track “Overgrown,” a simple 4/4 kit loop is paired with clean, unprocessed vocals before concluding in a cascade of beautiful, Disney-like strings. The sparsity and concentrated use of space from his previous album has been replaced with lush instrumentation. Rather than cut up his voice into indecipherable blips, Blake lets his dynamic range and soulful tenor guide the tracks. The songs feel less like electronic experiments backed with vocals and more like songs backed with electronics. While the Afrobeat and two-step percussion characteristic of his previous efforts felt absent, Blake nowadays can utilize just a kick, snare and a clap track to compliment his songwriting.
“Retrograde,” the first single off the record, similarly uses this minimalism to his advantage. Reminiscent of his take on Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” James Blake’s use of space and silence can create an atmosphere so haunting, it’s agoraphobic. He continues this pattern on “Retrograde,” although the sub-bass and loops associated with his UK dubstep days are replaced with jazzy synth and a hook so catchy you’ll sing it for days. “Suddenly I’m hit!” he belts, echoing the neo-soul of Bobby Womack and the nuanced production of Outkast.
The record showcases not only a careful approach to recording but also his song-crafting ability. Whereas a number of his previous singles (including “Wilhelm Scream,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You”) were covers, “Overgrown” features all originals. A dichotomy, however, exists as he struggles between being the jazz pub-singer and the futuristic producer. The line between what was notated on sheet music and what was pieced together on his laptop at 3 a.m. often blur. Tracks like “I Am Sold” and “DLM” veer too close to Tori Amos territory at times whereas “Life Around Here” feels calculatingly rigid. His vocals, angelic but trembling in approach, are so vulnerable on the other hand that these otherwise forgettable moments are forgiven. As fluctuating as the tracks go, the believability in his vocals and lyrics guide “Overgrown” from start to finish. The one weak link on the album, the collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA on “Take A Fall For Me,” is when Blake is no longer the centerpiece. Twisting knobs and triggering drum samples behind the one hip-hop song, Blake’s accessibility comes less from his producer-role and more from what he has to say.
The album picks up again from its second half, including a second, more satisfying collaboration with experimental legend Brian Eno on “Digital Lion.” Layers of warm synth blend the best moments of Eno’s seminal “Music for Airports” with modern musicians like Burial and Boards of Canada. The serene ambiance is eventually capsized by a wondrous array of layered gospel harmonies until ending in a clashing rhythmic section reminiscent of Radiohead. The album’s best track then effortlessly flows into “Voyeur,” a song wondrously sinister yet infectiously dance-y. Pairing an indecipherable vocal loop with Caribou-esque cowbells, Blake seems unabashed in creating a song that nods to his early days as a DJ in London clubs.
The album slows to finish with the Grizzly Bear-like organs on “To the Last” and the mid-tempo “Our Love Comes Back.” The closer would feel less disappointing if the album itself did not feel so short. As well explored these ideas go, listening to “Overgrown” leaves a bit to be desired, be it its length or its invariability. Despite this, the record is strengthened by its simple hooks, lush production and the emotionality of his signature croon. The new record sees Blake at his finest, creating a record both uniquely soulful and inventive. For an album called “Overgrown,” James Blake seems perfectly settled, with any additional shrub or excess cut away.
Favorite tracks; “Retrograde,” “Digital Lion,” “Voyeur”