British electronic music wunderkind James Blake first drew deserved praise on both sides of the Atlantic with the release of his self-titled debut album in the spring of 2011. Having already drawn significant accolades in the U.K. for his work as a producer, Blake’s ethereal and evocative vocals finally gained more praise than his beats upon the release of James Blake’s first single, a cover of the track “Limit to Your Love” from the 2007 Feist album The Reminder. Blake was hailed as a genius for the feat of taking a piano-driven, pop-influenced dirge and transforming it into a sparse post-dubstep pastiche of voice, keys, silence and beats. Even this early in his career, Blake was treated as a sort of barometer for the current state of the relationship between electronic and pop music, a role he seems to continue to inhabit on Overgrown.
Another remarkable cover came later in 2011 on Blake’s EP Enough Thunder, this time a version of the track “A Case of You” from the legendary 1971 Joni Mitchell album Blue. As is sometimes typical of Blake’s intimate but otherworldly style, the song seems both foreign and hauntingly familiar. His imitations of Mitchell’s distinctive vocals pay tribute without ever verging on unintended mockery. The most refreshing aspect of the song, especially in contrast with his previous work on James Blake, is the instrumental simplicity: instead of competing with electronic beats (which, granted, prove to be much less gimmicky in the hands of Blake than most performers and producers), Blake’s voice shimmers and occasionally soars over a simple piano melody.
Blake’s voice has always been stark and uncompromisingly unique; in fact, those attributes are some of his biggest strengths as an artist. From his debut album to Overgrown, however, there has been a significant change in the way his voice is showcased. Even on the best tracks on James Blake — “The Wilhelm Scream” and even “Limit to Your Love” come to mind — there is an almost combative distance between Blake’s voice and the music it is laid over. The music provides a sonic landscape over which Blake explores the limits of his considerable vocal range, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in falsetto. On Overgrown, however, the tendency is much more towards a sense of sonic unity: the music is less prominent and certainly less distant, giving Blake’s voice more space to flourish and spread. Sometimes, like in the chorus of the album’s first single, “Retrograde,” it is nearly impossible for the listener to discern the difference between the music and an additional layer of Blake’s voice, and the effect is enchanting.
“Retrograde” is beyond doubt the best track on Overgrown. It’s the album’s catchiest, most memorable song, and it also serves as the best example of the changes Blake has been making as an artist. Musically its orientation is as much towards soul — at moments, even towards doo-wop — as it is towards electronica, and Blake could not have made a more appropriate choice. Both in terms of his vocal capacities and what is timely in British (and slowly but surely, American) pop music, a movement towards soul serves Blake generously.
Laid over an enticing handclap beat and Blake’s own humming, the singer’s voice smolders coolly. By the time the chorus arrives, signaled by electronic sirens and Blake’s crooning of the line, “Suddenly I’m hit,” “Retrograde” has achieved the climax it has achingly, longingly been building towards.
It’s difficult to note the sensibilities that govern “Retrograde” (and much of Overgrown) without drawing connections to another notable British release of this spring, the debut album Woman by the band Rhye. Both albums feature instrumental variety but still largely depend on an underlying beat, and both beautifully showcase unique vocal talent. But perhaps most significantly, both show a reinvigoration (if such controlled performances can be called that) of the long-standing tradition of blue-eyed soul in British pop music.
Unfortunately for someone as talented as Blake, Overgrown isn’t without its missteps, which is especially sad given how close it gets to tapping into the present musical moment. The lack of lyrical strength on the album is troubling and can hardly be excused because of Blake’s vocal range or skillful production. Certain moments on the album simply don’t make sense: Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA’s contributions to the track “Take A Fall For Me” are interesting but not particularly compelling — which, in Blake’s defense, is probably more due to RZA’s questionable skill as a rapper than Blake’s choice to include a rapper on the track.
The album’s shortest track, “DLM,” is also one of its loveliest, and this is due once again to the sort of instrumental simplicity that makes Blake’s cover of “A Case of You” so heart-wrenching. Sometimes Blake’s skill as a producer allows him to make a remarkable track like “Retrograde,” but one wonders if an album of carefully crafted, simpler pieces of music like “DLM” would ultimately be more enjoyable for listeners than the occasionally sublime, occasionally mystifying Overgrown.
— By Logan Lockner