In the Blake midwinter

Music

You should definitely care about James Blake. The electronic musician (though it seems insufficient to categorize him as such) got the runner-up spot on the BBC’s “Sound of 2011” poll and a place in Pitchfork’s “Top 50 albums of 2010”…without even releasing an album. His EP releases were enough to honour this embryonic icon.

Fusing a mix of soul, samples, frugal drums and his background in classical piano, the brutal economy of Blake’s style is hugely divisive. But you can’t deny that it’s his style, with similarities to fellow minimalist Mount Kimbie, but with added warmth from his waveringly tender vocals, which make Blake stand out.

The album is heavy on vocoded vocals, and it’s interesting to hear the metallic autotuned quality outside the world of RnB. It’s not that Blake can’t sing, (‘Limit to Your Love’ proves that) but that he uses his voice as the key instrument, manipulated and twisted to intense fragility. Various vocal threads are launched and collide in every song on the album, most effectively on the R Kelly-ish croon of ‘I Never Learnt to Share.’ And when these threads synchronise, the resulting evocation of various vocal chords, remaining for a second, is both clever and sumptuous.

In this temporality lies another key essence of Blake’s skill. His use of sounds that begin and start in their middle is quite discomforting, yet his music is not meant to be easy. The brevity of these sounds in tracks like ‘To Care’ seems to illustrate how little he can do with so much. By removing the completion of various samples, his tracks contrast often quite soft base tones with piercing recurrent notes. The effect is a paradoxical urgency co-existing with floating, deeply slow beats.

Of course deconstructing an artist like Blake does seem to detract from the more pragmatic side of whether the album works as a whole. James Blake is a highly successful experiment into what the minimalism of post-modern classical composers can do for popular music, and how musically coherent and beautiful it can be, once you’ve put in some work.

Yet despite my laudation of the intricacies of sound and vocal melting, the most conventional song on the album, Blake’s cover of Feist’s ‘Limit to Your Love,’ with a clear verse, chorus and melody is also the most accomplished track. So my only reservation with this album is that as clever and surprisingly listenable and enjoyable all the experimentation is, it’s a shame that Blake hasn’t used his skill to enhance more regular music.

It’s an unfortunate irony that though it is the defining space, air and strangeness of the production that makes the Feist cover so stunning, these qualities on their own do leave the listener ever so slightly hungry. Yet an album of minimalist inspired pop songs does, at least conceptually, seem to detract from the uniqueness that makes him so intriguing in the first place.

On reflection I think he’s made the right choice.