Music

James Blake: Overgrown

The London wunderkind returns with an album that attempts to satisfy fans nostalgic for his early post-dubstep tinkerings and the new legion of listeners who know him as one of the decade's most promising singer-songwriters.


James Blake

Overgrown

Label: Polydor / Republic Records
US Release Date: 2013-04-09
UK Release Date: 2013-04-10
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.