Listeners wondering how London’s James Blake moved from the subtly boundary-pushing dubstep of his first three EPs to the comparably straightforward, R&B-laden singer-songwriter material of 2011’s James Blake, his wildly acclaimed debut LP (and the sold-out international tours that followed), should look to a single song for their answer. Performed for a BBC Radio 1 session to coincide with his album’s release, Blake’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” shows the then-21-year-old’s hand — or hands, really, as his flourishes on the solo piano venture sound out his virtuoso talents on the keys. In what would become the signature move of his self-titled collection of songs, Blake fills the track with an almost equal amount of silence from his piano, letting notes ring and fade out into silence, as if the instrument were tossing and turning in halfsleep for the three-minute take. Married to Blake’s vocals, a perfect blend of concert-hall-ready pitch and gripping emotional cracks, the cover performs a rare miracle of the form: it both becomes his own song while also staying true to the fundamental spirit of Mitchell’s original classic.
When you realize you can do such a thing, with a keyboard and your voice, there’s only one thing to do next: you do it again, over and over.
Many of Blake’s early fans, those who listened to tracks like “CMYK” and “Klavierwerke” on headphones and in dark East London clubs, must have felt a bit betrayed by the full-length record that followed. Commercial in a way none of those initial releases even began to predict, James Blake reinvented its songwriter as a balladeer for the 21st century, someone taking the basic formula at the heart of the music made by progenitors like Joni Mitchell — emotive, confessional songs built around instrument-and-voice in structures that at their best were simple without being predictable — and updating it with futuristic electronic flourishes and enough subtle textural notes to fill a carpet warehouse.
Blake’s follow-up, Overgrown, has good news for those fans, at least on its surface. On the first few spins, Overgrown seems almost bereft of even the restrained hooks and more pop-oriented elements of James Blake. The B-side run of “Digital Lion” through “Our Love Comes Back” brings Blake’s love for ebb-and-flow dynamics and headphone-fetishist sonic tinkering to his album work in a more full-blooded way than anything on James Blake, showing the singer’s new willingness to push territory previously reserved for his EPs (and their more limited audience) onto his wide releases. And it’s the better half of the record. “Digital Lion”, conspicuously co-produced with Brian Eno, slowly adds layer upon layer of percussion and vocal loops to the song until we’re lift with a wondrous concoction, something like a multi-tiered mammoth proudly resting in the display case of a posh bakery. “Voyeur” moves from Blake’s now-familiar vocal manipulation into a proper 4/4 banger, which would be club-ready if not for the (comforting) haze of keyboard drone Blake tosses on top of the mix.
In a strange mistake of sequencing, Blake frontloads Overgrown with its least interesting material. The title track and opening cut is strong enough, a logical conclusion of the self-titled record’s path, Blake’s confessional lyrics — “I don’t want to be a star / but a stone on the shore” — given front-and-center placement atop a hypnotic, slowly evolving beat. But “I Am Sold” and “Life Round Here” seem more like retreads of that early material, exercises in pitch-shifting and Quiet Storm mood. Still, these songs are incalculably superior to the album’s one true low-point, the RZA showpiece “Take a Fall for Me”, a laughably awkward mismatch that seems like a collaboration the producers of the Grammys would work up after a night drinking whatever signature booze Diddy’s selling this month. It’s easily the worst thing Blake’s ever done, and it’s tough to wash the taste out of your mouth for the remainder of the record.
Whatever Overgrown’s disappointments, it still bears the mark of a young songwriter of obscene talent. Think of all the different shapes he’s taken in just the three (!) years he’s been releasing music under his own name. The record feels like the work of an artist already restless at 23. That’s a good thing for us. James Blake doesn’t seem the type to look backward or to stay still for very long.