New Music: James Blake – Retrograde

photo by Dave Lichterman

This week, he does it again. The moment you think you’ve finally pinned down James Blake, he’ll give you the slip and turn the tables upside down again. Blake is no chameleon – he doesn’t change based on his surroundings or to try and fit in with any particular scene. Rather, he’s stayed on the cutting edge of its development for a remarkably long time for a comparably small name. But if the rest of his new record Overgrown is even half as captivating as “Retrograde”, he won’t stay small for much longer.

Blake’s path to the present has been an interesting one. In 2009, he began the near-endless process we’ve seen him carry through until now. Every few months, he releases a single or EP with a different development style. The Bells Sketch back in March of 2010 was a beautiful alternative look at the English dubstep genre, already in full swing amongst the likes of Burial and Four Tet. But then in May of the same year, he took the same elements and created a radically different experience with the timeless CMYK, which blended dub and bass textures with jazz and soul to create an organism completely unique to Blake’s world. The next year, he took his soul jones to a new level with a self-titled LP. On James Blake we saw a new level of post-dubstep minimalism – bass textures without any of their typical context and soul vibes without any of the genre’s usual elements. Difficult to grasp at first, James Blake became a favorite of year for more than a few people. But then, in October of the same year, he reversed nearly all of this development with Enough Thunder, an EP that emphasized above other things not soul, not dubstep, but stripped down vocal and piano harmony, including an excellent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”. Then in December, he went back to dubstep with Love What Happened Here and on and on and on.

But now, it seems with “Retrograde” that Blake has returned to soul and R&B to take his infatuation with it to new heights. “Retrograde” is perhaps his most accessible single yet, without being a copout or dumbing down any of his methods or his standards. Led by a simple beat and clap, Blake lets his sultry voice do most of the work until the hook kicks in where textures thicken and the deep, throaty bass we’ve come to know him by guide the track. “Retrograde” is essentially the culmination of all the seemingly disjunct work we’ve seen Blake put out in the past two years. When his first LP was released, Blake made it a point to emphasize the difference between the mentality of his LPs and the mentality of his singles and shorter releases. The latter are short bursts of idea – creative spurts that Blake let ignite and burn bright in the short time that they last (the best example of which may be the Love What Happened Here cut “Curbside”, which startled and confused a good chunk of his audience). On the other hand, Blake’s LPs are developmental milestones for himself. If “Retrograde” is a fair sample of what Overgrown is bound to bring, then it seems that he is following suit with this highly anticipated sophomore full-length.

“Retrograde” is available for download this week. Overgrown will be out April 8 on Republic. James Blake will tour in support of the record and you can see him at the Neptune on April 23.

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