Nestled deep in the furrows of wintertime, insularity becomes the norm as cold air hits the face. In the glacially slow season halfway between the festive period and the dawn of spring, a young but ominous figure drifts in the shadows and deals in icy bouts of harsh introspection. James Blake possesses a soulful, elegiac voice and an innate ability to paint portraits of his state of mind which, ten years ago today, manifested themselves on his generation-defining debut album, fittingly self-titled.
The living situation in which an artist births a record under is perhaps its most defining aspect. When writing 'Blue', Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell had recently said goodbye to one of the great loves of her life and exiled herself in various locations away from music, resulting in a legendarily brutal set of break-up songs.
James Blake, somewhat conversely, is an extremely solitary work of longing art pop made with heavy outside-looking-in inspiration from the sounds of off-the-books club sounds coming from London in the late 2000s. There are no songs about a present love here, rather a rueful post-mortem that shows a self-destructive force that drives him to go back to being alone. It mirrors the artist’s daily routine at the time, hermitting in his uni house as an emotionally-aggravating way to avoid the outdoors. He would make music well into the night, capping off each session with a spin of Joni Mitchell’s 'Blue'.
Blake started out on cornerstone underground electronic labels like R&S Records, Hemlock and Hessle Audio, sharing haunted dance tracks that fell under titles such as post-dubstep and future garage. This was an ongoing movement that took the original tenets of these genres - their quick, off-kilter percussion and sparse, rave-sized atmosphere - to a different context influenced by ambient music.
Using space and silence as a weapon, it was clear that the London boy was continuing the recent history of taking these styles into a more groundless place, however as a new instance of soul-driven chords allude to his to-be-trademarked melancholia, he was clearly reaching for something beyond the spiralling textures already.
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Blake always had a taste that was at odds with the scene he was pigeonholed into. The inspiration he took from was broad and abstract, evident in his now-classic BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix that cross-faded UK bass with hip-hop remixes, neo-soul and singer/songwriter music. James Blake’s most successful single is an indicator of this polychotomy of influences, covering Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ on piano before fading into stark sub-bass and echoed drums. It almost sounded novelty in how it separates the two before bringing them into the same tense room, and was a bold statement of intent that made people snap their necks in focus.
Compare this to what Magnetic Man, the dubstep supergroup of Skream, Benga and Artwork, artists he likely idolised on his come-up, were doing at the time to infiltrate the charts. These club kingpins were likely idolised by Blake a few years earlier, yet dated pop crossovers like ‘I Need Air’ pale in significance to the more artful directions he was finding.
In those earlier EP’s, he toys with vocal samples in the same jarring, stutterful way he would later on in his timeline. But we also get tiny inches of Blake’s own voice, and his first feature-length would see him come out from those woods. Capturing him like a doctored photo of a mythical creature, the album masks his soul in a cloud of smoke separating him and the listeners. There is something to be said of the artwork, conveying a distinct shape with distinct features yet still awash with obscurities, parallel to the music.
Original opener ‘Unluck’ was a revelation in 2011, and still is today. Blocking out any atmosphere like shutting the front door on a windy morning, Blake comes in immediately with the urge to wrap his vocals into a ball and chain together multiple disorienting passages. Though it’s very eventful, crushed textures and all, it’s kept quiet by tugging the leash of the whirring bass and dulling his favoured squelchy synth tones. That reclusive streak is what would define a record of brief, momentary exposure amongst a shroud of misty effects.
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The one-two punch of ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ and ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ serve as the best highlights of Blake’s minimalistic approach to songwriting, taking on a secondary role of mapping out his mental waves of loneliness and instability. Repeating thin lyrics that cycle like the single thoughts that make him most anxious, he allows the instrumental to summon meaning as it progresses from small clusters to towering clouds of smoke smothering his headspace. As he descends into “falling, falling, falling…” on ‘Wilhelm Scream’, named after the famous movie sound effect used for a character falling from a great height, the ether that passes through him feels oddly tranquil, like a cold comfort. Blake’s hollow writing style creates music that does not give you anything, but brings something out of you.
Meanwhile ‘Never Learnt…’ sees looking back at how his solo childhood affects him today; “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me / but I don’t blame them”. Setting a lugubrious atmosphere reminiscent of ambient artist Tycho, a playful synth bounces around the spectrum of octaves until it starts rising ever higher, like the climb of Kingda Ka. The entire grid buzzes into life, shocking every nerve ending with squealing machinery as the voltic energy transfers from your ears down to the floor, electrifying the room. As well as providing pneumatic thrills, moments like these demonstrate the ways he pulls such physicality from few words.
Raised an only child, Blake seems to be subconsciously aware of that remoteness. In an interview with Clash around the time of release, Blake himself said it’s “possible” the track laments his solo upbringing and it not giving him ample social skills (look to the title for evidence). It can explain why he resorted to the unhealthy lifestyle he led during recording, nonetheless it reflects on this single-minded debut project. Handling essentially all of the writing, recording, production and mixing, the record's subsequent notoriety afforded him collaborations with Bon Iver, Brian Eno and RZA. Something he would lean into more and more as his career went on, slowly learning to welcome the outside world.
As of now, his latest release 'Assume Form' features the most guest artists of any album of his, as well as general belief in complete honestly and forwardness to finally rid himself of that underlying dejection. But here in 2011, he stood as enigmatic as the legends of electronica, a bedroom producer that favoured anonymity in spite of the world’s sudden interest, like Aphex Twin and Boards Of Canada before him.
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Above all though, there is one artist whom Blake is indebted to more than any other. The LP carries the same contrarian response to the original testosterone-driven thesis of underground dance music as Burial did in his first two records, which in 2011 were still a toddler’s age. Mount Kimbie’s 'Crooks & Lovers' from 2010 was also a precursor for the types of vocal and instrumental manipulations Blake and a ream of other electronic artists would instigate in the future.
Moreover, Blake has explained in interviews how The xx paved way for his own success, despite their stylistic differences. “They’ve kind of warmed the seat”, he elaborated to Clash at the time, “in the way that when people listen to sparse electronic music, they are gonna be a lot less shocked by it now that The xx have released an amazing album. It’s made it a lot easier for me.” Their beat-making virtuoso Jamie xx can relate to him on a shared enamouration with club culture, and a desire to replicate that into something far away from the dancefloor.
Post-dubstep did not outlive its parent genre, as the purveyors of the style would trickle out into more nuanced directions, but for a time, Blake stood among a line of other contemporaries such as Jamie Woon, Joy Orbison, Airhead and Fantastic Mr Fox. Although he displayed a key idea that showed him to be wholly different. Scattered in between the glitched concoctions were supple piano ditties that were removed from dance music altogether, but entrench the listener deeper into his world.
Ballasting interludes ‘Give Me My Month’ and ‘Why Don’t You Call Me’ build greater understanding of what lies behind the silhouette he has so-far conjured. It was difficult to tell whether he was a computer musician indulging in piano crooning or vice-versa, but it’s this organic songwriting that ascended the man beyond those styles he was initially ascribed to, and how music fans from outside the genre grabbed onto his music. He freed himself from the stipulations and undervaluing that comes from the "producer" tag, yet never let that role become any less than crucial.
James Blake’s use of vocal effects was striking, even in the aftermath of the autotune revolution. In lieu of making a record dedicated to the vocal prowess the man already shows, he filters them with hard edges of tuning and glitched edits that accentuate the despondent emotions that run through the album like a cold shiver.
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The two parts of ‘Lindisfarne’ tenderly exemplify this, beginning small with an acapella, Laurie Anderson ‘O Science’-esque vox, letting in just a peppering of acoustic guitar and an off-kilter click groove. Quiet enough to suggest this is his place of escape from the world, the song is named after an island off the coast of North East England that can only be accessible by a temporary causeway that disappears at high tide. After the open wound of the preceding songs, this feels like a place of recuperation.
There is no single emotion one can prescribe to James Blake’s first album, each song leaving a sense of ambiguity for the listener to follow along, or harvesting a mishmash of disordered feelings. Again looking at the cover art with this in mind, the many faces of Blake blur into a mess, just like the rest of us at our most mentally fragile. From a musical standpoint, James Blake is a perfect merging of electronic music and songwriting both equal and integral to each other on a functional level, and a breaking point for the genre that quietly rippled through the culture as time went on.
Rest assured, its impact was felt upon release, receiving bandwagons of praise and turning up on many high-profile end-of-year lists. The record even put him in line for a BRIT Critics’ Choice Award and on the BBC Sound of 2011 shortlist, narrowly losing out both times to Jessie J. Blake became the new producing prodigy destined to change the face of British music, a prophecy he would fulfill with his Mercury Prize-winning second record 'Overgrown'. He sat in a perfect sweet spot of having genuine fandom surrounding him and casting a wide shadow on other artists’ works.
British dance producer SG Lewis recently discussed the personal impact of the album on him: “It was one of the most creative and effectives combinations of electronic music and singer/songwriter genres. It was such an innovative way of combining those two things that I loved hugely and loved separately, that it just blew open the chest of possibilities of what electronic music could be.” Much like Björk’s 90s run, Blake re-entered electronic music into the songwriting spectrum as a tool to display weighted emotions.
For that, it can count the art pop of Lorde and FKA twigs, the alternative R&B of How To Dress Well and Banks, as well as the garage-pop hybrid of SBTRKT and Disclosure, as its kin. Impact was felt in the artists he has strong associations with too; Bon Iver was already toying with altered, prismatic vocals, but was clearly enamoured with Blake enough for it to influence the digital backdrop of '22, A Million'. Frank Ocean too utilised Blake’s blueprints in the gospel elements of 'Blonde' and the fragmented glitch-soul of 'Endless'. Even Burial changed his sound almost in weird snake-eats-tail response that brought more roboticised vocals and a wider adoption of outside influences in the wake of this new expansion.
To a thousand other bedroom producers, Blake had cracked the code. Blending R&B, soul, singer/songwriter, dubstep and garage without feeling like he was taking a bold new style closer to the old and established ways. Like a legend of folklore, his reputation grew as one of the premier voices in modern music, both vocally and musically, as the first album began to treacle into the next decade of music to come.
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Words: Nathan Evans
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