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In his short time as a prolific musician, James Blake has made music that could be called post-dubstep, experimental electronica, experimental singer-songwriter, IDM balladry, remixed classic rap and R&B tracks and collaborated with Bon Iver and Trim. On his self-titled debut, Blake’s soulful meditative voice was to the fore of his electronic gospel productions.
On Overgrown, his quivering vocal bruised singing voice is still front and centre but there’s less of bedroom studiousness to proceedings. The changes are subtle but palpable. While still essentially a collection of electronic gospel songs, the album is burnished with a live sound that removes Blake from his close association with other electronic producers. Sure, he’s displayed his balladeer tendencies in the past with covers of Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You, but here, Blake has carved a unique space all of his own removed from either world. He now really makes songs not productions.
The fact that Brian Eno is a collaborator on ‘Digital Lion’ points to where Blake really sees himself going, towards the experimental world of composer. But then RZA pops up on ‘Take A Fall For’ too, so you feel there’s no easy path and that is what makes Blake’s music so interesting.
The album’s most dynamic moments : the big rollercoaster chords and subsequent dancefloor energy on ‘Voyeur’, the motorik bass of ‘Digital Lion, the rolling synths of ‘Life Round Here’ offer the album’s peaks. But the album’s core is Blake’s gently brooding arrangements, The title track sounds like something Massive Attack would concoct and ‘Retrograde’ burns with a soulful directness. Blake’s vocals are never far away from evoking spectres and phantoms this time around really are offering actual lyrics rather than mantras (though there’s plenty of those digitally enhanced too) and those words give the album an extra spark, a personality.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter may have seen me say I couldnt get into this record earlier in the week. That’s because it has a disjointed feel to it. It’s relatively understated at the best of time (like his debut) and can takes a good pair of headphones to really bring out its textures. After a dozen or so listens, I can say I feel it now. Overgrown is Blake stretching himself. There are elements of all the above genres he’s dabbled with. It’s electronic, soul, dub, gospel, R&B, experimental, singer-songwriter all at once but it’s singular again.
Like The Knife last week, Blake started to hear his music echoed by others and pressed on. When his former room-mate Ifan Dafydd (and his main soundalike culprit over the last few years intentional or no) appeared with a new track recently, it had a very similar sound to Blake. After listening to Overgrown, which successfully creates a new space for him to play his music, the Dafydd track now sounds like the echo of Blake’s past. James Blake has moved on.