Throughout the past decade, James Blake has proven himself to be one of the most quietly consistent musicians around. Not deliberately evasive but certainly not someone itching at every opportunity for the spotlight, he has cultivated this reputation through a back catalogue of supremely sophisticated neo-soul and electronica.
When we think about our relationship with the Brit School graduate now, in 2019, it hasn’t really differed that much from how it was in 2011 when Blake was about to release the album that is the subject of this spotlight piece. He was, and still is, an artist whose well-honed sensibility for finding magnificence in the understated provides him with a truly unique USP.
When you consider the maximalism that those around him at the beginning of the decade were opting for, it really becomes no mystery as to how this somewhat socially- awkward 22-year-old was able to cultivate such a rich following.
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One year prior to the release of his self-titled debut, Blake’s trio of EPs had set a daunting benchmark for him to try and usurp. A collection of three fifteen-or-so-minute-long releases, 'The Bells Sketch' EP, 'CMYK' EP and 'Klavierwerke' EP had provided Blake with the seemingly thankless task of producing a follow-up fairly quickly, as they had been so well received - I certainly can’t remember Pitchfork including a collection of EPs in the Top 10 of their End-Of-Year-List before or since.
Nonetheless, the melancholic crooner persisted, delivering his debut album in February 2011 and redefining what electronic-pop could and would prove to be throughout the ensuing decade. Whether it be his cover of Feist’s 'Limit To Your Love', the initially mundane but eventually captivating 'I Never Learnt To Share' or his ability to provide drama in the simplest, most understated of transitions as on 'Lindisfarne I & II', the album, even all these years later, doesn’t make a misstep at any point.
James Blake’s defining moments come in the shape of 'The Wilhelm Scream' and 'Measurements', the former solidifying in one fell swoop his reputation as one of the most interesting songwriters of his generation and the latter acting as almost his 'Queen Bitch' moment, chilling enough to earn it’s place on the album but foreboding enough to also hint, with the benefit of hindsight at least, at what he was yet to create on his sophomore, Mercury Prize- winning release.
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It isn’t an understatement, even based singularly on this release, to compare Blake with the best of his contemporaries such as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon or How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell. Vernon’s comparison proves especially potent given Blake’s use of the vocoder and the distorted production of a lot of his glitchier vocals, something that his American counterpart pulled off so brilliantly a mere five years later on 2016’s '22, A Million'.
Tracking both of these extraordinary musicians and their careers in the prevailing years, it becomes increasingly easier to see how they are so similar. Both have earned uncharacteristically universal praise in the worlds of electronic music and hip-hop (Vernon’s work with Kanye found both creative forces working together at their absolute best and Blake’s working relationship with Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar has allowed for some much needed variety in all of their respective works) and both, from the very earliest moments of their career have seemed absolutely, unequivocally assured as to what their work was intended to represent.
In the case of Blake, and more particularly his debut album, it was to show how a voice, even when it isn’t the most perfect or pristine, can find warmth in the chilliest of surroundings. It’s difficult to describe any of the compositions or production on James Blake as inherently filled with warmth of any kind. Instead, his voice, within the context of the record, represents a flickering candle that almost certainly seems as though it’s about to extinguish amidst the cold and combative surroundings. And yet, it continues, persisting through these tracks as the one defining source of light, holding the whole project together.
Blake’s talent as a producer would reach headier heights on his next album and his foray into maximalism on 2016’s 'The Colour In Anything' provided a seismic change of pace when considered within the context of his back catalogue.
But, if you want to truly find the essence of who he is and, more pertinently, what he represents within this vast, diverse and multi-faceted industry that is the British music scene, he is yet to deliver an album that does this to a higher standard than his simply awe-inspiring study of the mundane that is James Blake.
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Words: Mike Watkins
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