Dubstep is plenty of things these days, a vastly mushrooming nomenclature that broaches the periphery of nearly all dance genres, and even occasionally links to headphone jams that are less adherent to club sensibilities. Despite dubstep’s broad reach, James Blake is not a dubstep album. Please forgive the myriad critics usually trafficking in rock records who will refer to it as such, and also excuse the author himself, who speaks defiantly of being down with the scene, boasting of his transformative experiences at FWD>> and DMZ. Though Blake may classify himself as such, Blake is not a dubstep artist.
His three 2010 EPs, all essential listening music, flirted along the fringes of the scene, but with his self-titled debut, Blake has put aside any pretense of communality and made a stripped, personal, and deeply weird electro R&B record that is both a wild tangent and a successive canon to those EPs. It’s a starkly naked album. All of the dub and synthetic dressings are taut and transparent buttresses to the liturgy of the voice, as opposed to the riddim. However, even thought the music is secondary, it is hardly inconsequential and functions perfectly as a series stringy and/or rubbery sutures for Blake’s precarious and desolate emotional detachment.
His previous works were perhaps most notable for their methods of incorporating endlessly processed, neutered, and degenerated voices into complex scrambled sonic narratives and forging something provocative, moving, and mollifying out of the condensed flotsam remains of a somewhat violent mixology. The binding of vocal bits and bytes to rhythmic and melodic programming was a template laid long ago by jungle and hardcore rave, and its courting of samples of maven chanteuses (Brandy, Aaliyah, Kelis) for leftfield R&B was perfected in the infamous remixes of UK Garage, all of this taking place slightly before the turn of the millennium. Yet, Blake became notorious for skillfully applying these techniques to a demented and inventive brand of pop so utterly now that it could plausibly win him buzz on the indie Pitchfork circuit, earn him a spot as the runner-up of BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, and still be undeniably avant-garde enough to garner accolades from the Wire magazine crowd. His compositions on these EPs were both obstinately impenetrable and abstrusely commercial, each one a wheel-reinventing “Windowlicker”. Moreover, each tune repositioned all its referents, even dubstep, as things of the past (leading many to prematurely brand him with the essentially meaningless tag “post-dubstep”).
If there’s one thing that separates the James Blake of 2010 and the James Blake of 2011, it’s the (probably digitized) room acoustics he employs on his self-titled debut. Whereas those EPs, particularly CMYK and The Bells Sketch were compact and dense (yet also, thanks in no small part to the vocal experiments, inviting and maternal), James Blake is full of ruminating, hollow, lonely, empty spaces. There’s plenty of breathing room here, but this atmosphere only makes the doleful record even more somber, like a man throwing himself a birthday party and no one showing up.
Take the synthpop gospel of closer “Measurements”, whose transparently electronic hymns are so solemn that one might believe that, for Blake, these timbres are more spiritual than church organs and choirs. These electronics are also stick thin, making the tune like layer one alone of a multitrack session with the requisite sweeping strings and reprised chorus removed. Here, Blake harmonizes with himself, as he does on other tracks, such as on “To Care (Like You)”. On the latter, he dissects the self and diverges it, splitting his voice a dozen different ways to haunt the room with shadow selves. On “Measurements” however, Blake becomes out of sync with himself, but not in a way that would dequantize as his earlier wonkier material did. Instead, the effect plays out like a rehearsal, the only studio session that survived the fire. The singing Blakes of “Measurements” desperately want to acquiesce. The technical failure of this effort adds a further layer of melancholy, an indication (par hypnagogic pop) that affective sentiment can occur as well by poorly conceived happy accident as by studio deliberation (like the auto-tune that rounds out the song).
Many may conjoin the disparate R&B and synthpop threads of the album and come away thinking that this is some ’80s soul throwback. As said above, Blake’s commitment to digital synth sounds is devout, but there’s none of the Fairlight emulation that characterized the electrosoul of radio pop during the decade in question. Recent attempts to calibrate a modern R&B have either consisted of too-reverent tweaks in the Motown/Stax formula (think Jamie Lidell, Cee-Lo), too-close approximations of Prince (Jimi Tenor, the Dream, Hudson Mohawke), or too-severe departures into amelodicism (Jay Haze, D’Angelo). Even so-called afrofuturists like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae seem to be too hung up on the past to actually accelerate their productions into the future. Blake remains thoroughly modernist on James Blake. And though he can be mumbly (“Unluck”), repetitive (“I Never Learnt to Share”, “Wilhelms Scream”), and eternally processed throughout, Blake’s throat is smooth, sultry, and catchy throughout the album’s duration, a choice that practically guarantees a widened listening base.
Still, the album hardly compromises its vision in search of a crossover success. Blake isn’t trying to be a white man continuing a black tradition. Instead, he is more like his idol Arthur Russell, bringing an artsy sensibility and a provocative strangeness to old forms, lumping him in somewhat unfortunately with the decades long British obsession with nationalizing their own brand of soul music.
On tracks like the Feist cover, “Limit to Your Love”, Blake may seem like he wants to do to dubstep what Russell did to disco, the wobble bass a dead giveaway. But Russell’s Dinosaur and Loose Joints projects adhered to the formalism of disco while subverting it. Whatever anatomical framework dubstep may have, Blake ignores it.
For one thing, rhythm is sparse on James Blake, though it is present. Lead track “Unluck” opens the proceedings with a kit made up of what sounds like a Sega Genesis bomb sound effect. “I Never Learnt to Share” and “Lindsfarne II” are mostly guided by sparse kick drum and little else. By the time “I Mind” actually throws some syncopation into the percussion, it feels powerful, as if the entire album has been waiting for some kind of guidance and structure.
Indeed, Blake’s playing is far from metronomic. It’s filled with notes bundled in sporadic bursts or looped in odd sequence, as if they were each the jumbled coordinates of disorganized mind, one fraught with insecurity, doubt, heartbreak, uncertainty, and regret. The clipped waveforms of “Why Don’t You Call Me” are so fragmented that they’re almost unmusical, but the abstract junkets serve to devastate when combined with the full lyric that the title betrays: “Why don’t you call me / What we both know I am?”
There are several other devastating lines like that one floating about. “I never told her where the fear comes from.” “Trying hard not to be too bold.” “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them.” “There’s a limit to your love.”
On “Wilhelms Scream”, there’s a static build that starts halfway into the track. As the hum gathers, Blake’s prominent voice gets pushed further back into the echo chamber. The dark textures eventually get competitive and drown out the vocals, which have been repeating the song’s conflicted verse ad nauseum. “I don’t know about my dreams / I don’t know about my dreaming anymore,” Blake says. “All that I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling / Might as well fall in.” At one point when the last line is uttered, the track literally seems to fall into itself, collapsing inside the Wilhem scream.
Though it’s an album of quiet dynamism with no actual audible screams, James Blake is certainly an album that invites its close listeners to fall in. It belongs to that very unique branch of avant-gardism, nee synthpop and soul (not so much dubstep), that invites in as it perplexes. So, please forgive those who might think this is Blake’s sell-out record. It’s every bit as challenging, forward-thinking, and interesting as those previous EPs. It just uses a more digestible template to achieve its ends. 2011’s James Blake is every bit as James Blake as 2010’s James Blake was, and that’s quite something. I can hardly wait for the 2012 model.