James Blake’s rise over the last 12 months or so has demonstrated the best and worst aspects of how new artists, particularly in Britain, develop and find an audience. Interest and plaudits for Blake initially spilled out of the dubstep scene with his Untold remix and the release of The Bells Sketch, before the wider blogging community began to take notice with CMYK and Klavierwerke. The point at which the good natured buzz surrounding Blake somehow tipped over into a hype/backlash storm is obviously impossible to pinpoint, but it’s been pretty depressing to observe.
The British music press and industry has long been derided for its tendency toward hype, and the backlash has seemingly come from the same kind of places – we are now living in an age where a spot on the BBC Sound of 20-whatever poll is a reason for suspicion, when artists’ profiles are carefully stacked up only to be gleefully knocked down again, rather like children playing with building blocks. The Guardian recently quoted a tweet from Portishead's Geoff Barrow to Blake – “Will this decade be remembered as the dubstep meets pub singer years?” – which gives you an idea of weird atmosphere surrounding this release and also suggests Barrow should think back to Dummy’s misappropriation as a coffee-table album in the ‘90s before he chucks comments like that around.
Happily, it helps that, as on his EPs, Blake has created an isolated, self-contained soundworld on his debut album that encourages you to leave the debate behind. While on Klavierwerke Blake took wordless snippets of his own voice to pieces and reassembled them into a collage with piano and beats, James Blake brings melody and lyrics into focus. However, he’s retained the strikingly minimalist approach that has become his trademark – something like ‘I Never Learned To Share’ for example, sounds like a snippet, one line of a track stretched until it becomes a song. The single lyric – “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them” – has an ambiguous humour not present elsewhere in Blake’s music.
Throughout, Blake toes the line between producer and songwriter, revealing new sides to his music that, in retrospect, may always have been there. The stark, treated vocals of ‘Lindisfarne I’ falls into the gentle, acoustic guitar and pulsing rhythm of ‘Lindisfarne II’ and this is where the Bon Iver comparisons are perhaps most appropriate. Feist is obviously another reference point – in many ways, Blake lifts not just one of The Reminder’s songs but also the way its production veers between sparse, open, almost-live recordings and more obviously studio-constructed ones. It’s on album standout, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, that he reconciles his two sides most successfully.
In many ways though – and this may well be frustrating for some – Blake doesn’t always try to reconcile these differences, but instead explores the gaps between the two. ‘Give Me My Month’ is a simple piano ballad that works as a simply untouched statement at the album’s centre, while ‘I Mind’ veers most closely back to the roots that we have heard on his EPs. On ‘To Care (Like You)’, he pitches his voice up, so that he’s almost duetting with another (almost feminine?) version of himself.
Blake’s lack of concern for genre, and his lack of concern for the way a musician who has supposedly emerged out of the dubstep scene is supposed to progress, is refreshing. In some ways, you can hear an underlying disdain for the fact that people who don’t spend their lives on blogs and in record stores will be able to listen to this album in the criticism it has pre-emptively received. Judged on its own terms, James Blake is an uncompromising exploration of its producer’s wide-ranging influences, one that quietly bends the figure of the singer-songwriter at the piano into new, unique shapes. Its melodies and intimacy will win him new fans, while its modesty and focus may have many people wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.