Album review: James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake press

by Matt Juniper

Artist: James Blake
Release: Overgrown (2013)
Label: Republic
Rating: 3.5 / 5

James-Blake-Overgrown-608x607A few key things have happened in the two years since James Blake’s self titled debut. For starters, Skrillex happened and consequently what little collective understanding we had left of what ‘dubstep’ even means evaporated entirely. Second, James’ hairstyle has continued to evolve into pretty much the exact haircut I had when I purchased ‘Tell All Your Friends’ by Taking Back Sunday in 2003. Third, people seemed to stop caring entirely about minimalist British music (dubstep or otherwise).

All of these things are a shame in one way or another, because all seem to lead to James Blake’s sophomore album ‘Overgrown’ being mostly overlooked, despite the fact that it shows Blake finally coming in to his own as an artist and realizing his full potential. We’ve seen glimpses of Blake’s brilliance before; The Wilhelm Scream is still a track I revisit on a regular basis. But his previous work has been fragmented, uneven and rarely felt uniquely his own.

‘Overgrown’ sheds itself of any past labels and focuses on what makes Blake unique: music with soul. Overtones of R&B stitch things together as Blake shifts from singer/songwriter piano ballads to production-driven beats and sampling-based tracks.

Retrograde is Blake’s single greatest triumph to date. When the song erupts in to its chorus (‘…suddenly I’m hip, in this darkness of the dawn…”) it is pure bliss. The emotional power of a full gospel choir evoked by just one scrawny little guy. Similarly, Life Around Here’s simple beats pack a surprising punch when paired with Blake’s non-sensical admission that “everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day”.

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People have placed their fair share of criticism on RZA collaboration Take a Fall for Me – a risk no doubt – but I am in the minority that thinks the track is both a bold move but also well placed on the album. RZA’s lyrical contribution is hardly poetry but his lifeless and mathematical vocals pair so brilliantly with Blake’s increasingly desperate cries. My criticisms would tend to focus more around Digital Lion and Voyeur, which break the soothing soulful feel of the earlier tracks for darker and more frantic beats. Evaluated on their own merit they are not bad tracks but they disrupt the flow of an otherwise cohesive album.

All in all, this feels like the first time James Blake is a known-quantity. Some may miss the mystique that surrounded him as he shapeshifted from dubstep to gospel to R&B and back. Others will appreciate the fact that he has found a consistency in quality and in sound that will allow them to view his work as a whole instead of broken down on a track-by-track basis.

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