Judging by the quietly assured, impressively restrained mood of James Blake’s self-titled debut album, it’s obvious that the young producer/songwriter knows that he’s on a hot streak. Much like Drake’s approach on the tremendously hyped Thank Me Later (and yes, I find it weird that I’m comparing the two), Blake is either too cocky to satisfy the hangers-on with the sort of blown-out spectacle that’s expected of young, mega-hyped talent, or clever enough to subvert the expectations by taking a subtler, more insular route. The twenty-two-year-old has already shown himself to be confident, boldly beginning his recording career with three EPs in 2009 that defiantly paint outside of the usual borders of electronic music. During the formative years that most young musicians use to establish themselves as a professional, Blake was more interested in establishing himself as an original, manically cutting up vocal samples and pitching them into increasingly austere sonic fields.
The CMYK EP is probably his most immediately audacious effort, reliant as it is on head-spinning streaks of voices shooting in and out of the speakers. It’s an EP that provides enough instant intrigue to suggest that Blake could have some crossover pop appeal in the future, but it was certainly esoteric enough to make it obvious that this wasn’t the breakthrough EP for Blake. Bravely, Blake chose not to continue in a more widely appealing direction, opting to use follow-up EP Klavierwerke to test the listening public’s tolerance for a more melancholic take on his spliced-vocal-sample-heavy methods. Considering how widely appreciated Klavierwerke’s devastatingly gorgeous “I Only Know (What I Know)” turned out to be, it’s easy enough to understand Blake’s stylistic choices on James Blake.
And what you get on James Blake is something a fan amusingly, if glibly, described on Blake’s Facebook page as “Antony and the Johnsons-step.” Sounds ridiculous, but it’s surprisingly close to the truth. Blake’s vocals, though frequently chopped up and occasionally Auto-Tuned, are startlingly pretty and soulful, and when thrown into Blake’s stark compositions, they can be powerfully devastating. The refrain of “I Never Learnt to Share” (“My brother and sister don’t speak to me and I don’t blame them”) is heartbreaking, and it only gets more and more jarring as Blake ramps up the buzzing atmospherics. Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” is playful and sweet in its original form, whereas Blake’s version highlights the tragic elements of the lyrics, creating tremendous tension through the use of recurring extended silences.
In fact, there are whole songs wherein Blake eschews the electronic tag entirely. “Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” are almost solely built on the warmth and ache in Blake’s voice and a piano. Both tracks could just have easily appeared on The Crying Light.
But those more conventional piano tracks are mostly breathers; brief respites in a sea of quiet, fuzzy, skittering electronic percussion and precisely edited, sorrowful vocals and piano. That’s where James Blake earns his stripes. What he is doing on James Blake is not entirely without precedent — there are shades of Burial and Dntel throughout — but Blake distinguishes himself on his first full-length effort with an album’s worth of high-concept, nakedly personal and casually inventive compositions. Blake just positioned himself as the man to beat in this young year.