Album Review: James Blake - Overgrown

In only a few quick years, James Blake‘s name and reputation have grown exponentially. Back in 2010, he pioneered the “post-dubstep” genre (consisting of pretty much just him back then) with the much-loved CMYK EP. His mixture of jazz, soul, and bassy undertones made for a rich and unique listening experience unlike anything else on the scene. In 2011, he released his debut self-titled LP, diving further down the rabbit hole that CMYK started and fully realizing Blake’s genre-blending style. Between the Bon Iver nods of “Lindisfarne” and the melancholy dubstep throwdown of “I Never Learnt To Share”, James Blake was an odyssey of a record that took more than a couple listens to comprehend. After disappearing back into shadow with a couple fairly inaccessible singles and gaining a secondary fanbase as a tried and true piano man with his lovely Joni Mitchell cover on Enough Thunder, James Blake now returns after his longest interim yet (just barely over a year). With a bit more time away, Blake has readied his LP follow up to the self-titled in the form of Overgrown (released yesterday), an album in every way removed from its predecessor. From the beginning, we’ve known Blake to never stay in the same place for long, and that couldn’t be more the case here. Overgrown is simultaneously a completely fresh picture of Blake as an artist and the culmination of all his stylistic experimentation thus far. In short, if you like James Blake, you’ll love Overgrown. But if you’ve been shy in the past, Blake might offer you something on Overgrown he hasn’t before.

In February, Blake dropped the Overgrown announcement while BBC DJ Zane Lowe spun the album’s lead single, “Retrograde”. Immediately, you can hear and even feel the passed time on the track. Blake’s vocals aren’t hiding underneath reverb, distortion, and envelope filters anymore - they are front and center on the track. The timid boy reaching manhood we saw on James Blake is gone. The conviction on the track sees Blake a new man, with a ferocity that any prior release wouldn’t dare show. The track itself sounds different, too. The dizzying complexity of James Blake and even that of Enough Thunder is nowhere to be found. This is a straightforward electronic R&B track with some verses, a hook, and a killer chorus. From the guy that wrote “The Bells Sketch” and “Sparing The Horse”, this was a bit interesting. On the record, “Retrograde” is followed by “DLM”, a sparse piano track on par with his “A Case of You” cover, in terms of simple beauty. Tracks like these shake up the habitual for Blake, and may surprise those that have been listening closely for the last couple years. The obscurity of his past work isn’t really evidenced here, but what is present is a cleaner, leaner machine that shows the sum of Blake’s parts with an extra coat of polish.

If you are listening to his lyrics, Blake lays it out pretty straightforward for you in the opening track. “I don’t want to be a star, or a stone on the shore, or a doorframe in a wall when everything’s overgrown”, he croons. There’s a lot to digest there. As the clock ticks on his life, Blake doesn’t want to be sitting on the sidelines or let his surroundings become him completely. If you think about it, becoming by mitosis is pretty easy in Blake’s industry. After all, fashion of all kinds changes quickly and leaves no room for those who fall behind. But Blake moves forward consciously with Overgrown, offering us a record whose locomotion doesn’t allow for much moss to grow. In these few words, Blake is putting it straight: sure, he’s made some wonderful music in the past couple years, but that’s no excuse to stay comfortable and keep pumping out the same product. Blake is reinventing himself constantly whether you like it or not.

So, just how else is he doing that, you may ask? No two tracks on Overgrown are the same. The Brian Eno produced “Digital Lion” gives us perhaps the most familiar shade of Blake we see on the record, but even here, Eno’s production evident, and the collaboration between the two puts the track just off kilter enough to give us a completely new experience. “Voyeur” is a skittering house track that begs to be played in clubs (there aren’t many James Blake tracks you can really describe that way) and evolves as it goes on into a drugged dubbed out jam. Then, completely out of left field, “Take A Fall For Me” sees Wu-Tang pioneer RZA rapping contemplatively over Blake’s ethereal foray into hip hop. The bonus track “Every Day I Ran” sees Blake sampling Big Boi for another hip hop offering.

Overgrown is unlike anything Blake has released thus far, but if we’re honest, you can really say that about anything he’s released in longer than three month increments. Blake continues to pioneer his own way through the dark cloud of electronic music, taking occasional turns towards pop and R&B before backing into mystery once again. Overgrown is out now on Universal and Blake’s own 1-800-DINOSAUR label on CD, digital, and vinyl. Blake is touring in support of Overgrown and will stop in Seattle on April 23 at the Neptune Theater with FaltyDL. Grab tickets here.

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