sun 21/07/2019

CD: James Blake - Overgrown | reviews, news & interviews

CD: James Blake - Overgrown

CD: James Blake - Overgrown

Can the king of post-dubstep melancholy deliver on his early promise?

James Blake: a digital native

There's an easy answer to James Blake's naysayers (and there are a lot of them): you're not listening loud enough. I made the mistake myself. Even knowing his early, brilliant electronic works, I was quite unimpressed by the breakthrough cover of Feist's “Limit to Your Love”, idly listened to on laptop or radio, until I heard it delivered over a club soundsystem and realised just how perfectly the song structure was built around the annihilating bass.

What Blake does, and is doing better than ever on his second album, is, roughly speaking, what Radiohead have been fumbling for since Kid A. Only unlike them he is a digital native, a member of the dubstep generation: where they are a rock band trying to work out piece-by-piece how electronic music is done, he does it like breathing. All his classical training and use of his own voice – easy to mistake for something tremulous and emotive but really an instrument of steely force, far more Tim Buckley than Chris Martin – are not separate from the electronics, but of a part with it, the playing and the effects in a feedback loop with one another.

Listen to the drop to a low register in “I am Sold” - is it electronic processing or is it vocal technique? Listen to the way the synths roughen and stiffen around the line “touchdown on a rainy day” in “Life Round Here”. Listen to how the pitched-down “and her mind was on me” in “Voyeur” becomes part of the rhythm. This is truly cyborg performance, a singer and his machines at one. If there's a weakness it's in the lyrics: just once in a while there's a crack in the hypnotic strangeness and an off-centre phrase like "we lie nocturnal" lands awkwardly; but this is really a quibble, just a by-product of the 24-year-old's ambition and easy to overlook if you turn up the volume and soak in the uncanny sophistication of sound-making on offer here.

Is it electronic processing or is it vocal technique?

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