Review: James Blake – ‘Overgrown’

Music

With his first album released two years ago, there is a sense running throughout of James Blake’s awareness of the decline of dubstep yet, at the same time, his awareness of the sonic possibilities within the genre that had yet to be explored. He was creating a sound which we might now identify as ‘post dubstep,’ marrying the characteristic dubstep 140 BPM and half-time emphases with influences from other genres, soul particularly. In Blake’s second album, we hear an artist just as interested in exploring new sonic territories – more so, even; this is an album more adventurous and less closely tied to the safe haven of his dubstep roots than his first.

In ‘Overgrown’ we see Blake branch out, incorporating and drawing on a wide range of influences and styles; there are flavours of RnB, house and hip-hop, often bearing certain luxurious, inventive qualities. In this respect, the track Life Round Here deserves special mention. I think it might be Blake’s finest track yet. A heavy, hip hop beat is layered over a melodious yet twangy bassline riff, piercing synths interject, shifting in intensity and volume, an unsettling effect. This is juxtaposed against melancholic, soulful breaks with no bass or beats. For me, the highlight of the track is Blake’s use of autotune in his vocal samples, subtle and self-aware; an inventive homage to the classic hip-hop/RnB technique. Ingenious, too, is Voyeur, a piano jam over a cowbell house beat and a repetitive vocal sample. The unexpected ‘drop’ ¾ of the way through the track plants us in true deep-house territory; this is music you can dance to.

The single, Retrograde, is constructed around a deceptively simple falsetto vocal sample. This track is mellow yet intense, an example of Blake’s impeccable technique in terms of production, vocals and harmonic composition.Blake’s two collaborators on the album are examples of – and pay testament to – his diversity and refusal to be pigeon-holed by genre or style. Avant-garde composer Brian Eno co-produced Digital Lion, a track as beautiful and soulful as it is eerie and cavernous. This is Blake at his darkest; the shuddering sub-bass breaks are quite disturbing, staying with me for hours afterwards. The chorus vocal effects, close harmonies and repetitive rising figures towards the end remind me, bizarrely, of the triplet song in Belleville rendez-vous. In the second collaboration, Wu Tang Clan’s RZA provides a rap/poem whose verses are somewhat surreal; “don’t throw my soul deep into the poltergeist”.  This is set against a languid, vaguely unsettling chord progression and Blake’s crooning backing vocals.

This album shows Blake at his best yet; navigating his way through a myriad of styles and influences whilst remaining completely, masterfully, in control of his material. Well worth a listen.

PHOTO/R&S Records