James Blake’s meteoric rise dovetails with the shifting priorities of English electronica. In three short years the 24 year old has gone from churning out skittish technicolour garage, replete with warbling RnB samples and fractal melodies, to finding his singing voice and turning out heartworn late night ballads. 2011’s eponymous debut divided fans, largely because of Blake’s vocals – an improbable hybrid of Chet Baker, John Martyn, and Nina Simone. Now, with that surprise assimilated, his melancholic, inventive second album is likely to garner unanimous praise from both critics and those fans who have stuck with him.
At a succinct 39 minutes long, Overgrown is blessed with the kind of pacing that turns a good collection of songs into a great album. It’s tales of fading relationships and clutched love start slowly and gather momentum, growing in stature as each track rolls out. Opener Overgrown is a hushed entry point, the first four minutes a hypnotic beat speckled with tinkling piano. “I don’t want to be a star// But a stone on the shore// Or a door frame in a wall where everything is overgrown,” Blake laments, the space in the track lending his voice the intimacy of a midnight confession. In the final minute a sudden emotive rush of strings floods the skeletal backing, his vocals are caught in the squall, swirl, then fall away.
I Am Sold follows and the orchestra retreats. Returning to a late night pulse and barely-there piano, Blake places his voice high in the mix, brooding over uncertain relationships, and singing the oblique refrain, “We lie nocturnal// Speculate what we feel.” The space of Overgrown is here again, and the track feels lonely as an empty room. When a muted, plucked guitar joins in there are distinct similarities to the ghostly soundscapes of The xx. On first listen, alarm bells ring – surely he’s going to deliver a fleshed out song next…?
Luckily Life Round Here does just that. As though he’s shaking off a troubled sleep, Blake introduces a distinct riff, a warping synth line indebted to the sexy, android RnB of Timbaland’s classic work with Aaliyah. The melody ducks from sight, hiding under the click of drums, before surging up more boisterous than anything that has come before, then receding. The album is hitting stride. Blake’s voice is remarkable- calling him a blue eyed soul singer feels like an undersell of the emotional wallop he delivers in his soaring, heartbroken delivery.
Take a Fall for Me plays the album’s wild card; an appearance from the iconic flow of RZA. Over rain soaked hip hop noir, the Wu Tang legend delivers a surprisingly tender performance, peppering his lovelorn plea ‘not to marry him’ with the kind of English references Americans love, mentioning fish n chips, drinking stout and that he “wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid.” RZA’s golden voice lifts Overgrown, without over shadowing. His rap flow also prefigures the hard RnB clap of next cut Retrograde- already racking up near a million Youtube views, Retrograde pits Blake’s nocturnal minimalism against a warm, swarming wall of synth; buzzing around the edge of discordant it swamps the music, taking the song to the brink of being unpleasant then pulling back at the last. The result is a blasted piece of modern soul, delicate jazz inflected vocals wrapped in the noise and full frequency assault of warehouse rave, with neither the poorer for the transaction.
DLM takes things back down, beginning as a more traditional piano and vocal arrangement, before unfurling into multi layered harmonies, somewhere between a choir and a freakish barber shop quartet, building round a central message of “please don’t let me hurt you anymore.” It’s a short interlude before Digital Lion, the albums much hyped Brian Eno collaboration.
Here, Eno’s presence can be felt in the washes of flotation tank atmospherics and intricate sound textures, tiny glitches skittering off between speakers. Kicking off with a ponderous 4/4 drum pattern, the introduction of a dubby, rattling snare tattoo midway through marks Overgrown’s first cautious approach to the dancefloor, albeit a woozy approach that’s as much influenced by Pink Floyd’s 70s prog instrumentals as it is anything from this century. The track is decent enough, but it feels more dated than anything else around it, and is really just a portal for the next track to romp through…
Voyeur, a wild percussive house groove throbs with the buzzing synths of Retrograde, and adds gurgling bubbles of acid house, collapsing keyboard melodies and swooping shards of noise. It’s the sound of a party ricocheting manically between joy and insanity. Any doubt as to whether dance music could explore new territories is utterly dispelled in Voyeur’s 4 minute bacchanal of mutant techno. There’s nowhere higher to travel afterwards so the album gently settles into the regal soul of To The Last. Based on a subverted major chord progression, like Unchained Melody’s bitter cousin hitting the skids, this is as close as Blake comes to a hands-in-the-air torch song. When he sings “We’re going to the last// You and I” it’s unclear as to whether he’s pleading, resigned or self-delusional, but perfectly clear he’s not happy.
Album closer Our Love Comes Back makes things more explicit – a hopeful, if uncertain note to end on, he sings ‘our love comes back in the middle of the night’ over a beautiful concoction of white noise, muted disco toms and his own looped vocal. It’s a fuller return to the minimalism that opened Overgrown, and the circle feels complete.
The album is easy to like. Despite the protestations of the record label, the progression between this and Blake’s first is far smaller than that between his debut and his early EPs – and really that’s no bad thing. Instead this feels like the work of an artist confortable with his sound, carving it out into a fully formed realisation. Blake has clearly aimed for Overgrown to have a distinct beginning, middle and end, and he has the remarkable talent of knowing what not to say and play as well as what to, stripping away anything inessential to leave the vital core of his songs, and his heart on display. Whilst some of the tracks meander prettily, lacking the bite to be taken out of context, as a whole the album works remarkably well, and it’s lonely, beautiful soundscapes deserve to cement Blake’s reputation as a major, mainstream talent. 8/10