At times, Drake can be an impressive… Wait, I’m not reviewing the new Drake? Could’ve fooled me. This felt even more colorless (y’know, despite the title) and tedious (76 minutes of an artist who had only ever written two or three songs, which is less than the number of songs Drake has written). Actually, surprisingly, most critics weren’t too lavish in their praise for this one (Pitchfork‘s Kevin Lozano: “He is never clever, catchy, or subtle. If anything he can even be comically melodramatic (“Where is my beautiful life?”) or annoyingly whiny (“I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me”)”, and I know Lozano was talking specifically about the lyrics, but the criticism can be leveraged to Blake’s entire body of work), and even a lot of Blake fans seemed to have called this one out.
Here’s a snippet, from The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey’s interview and write-up on James Blake: “The xx set the precedent and I set the further precedent, and the music world has bent to that sound… It’s like the opposite of punk, isn’t it? I got them all to shut up… I’ve subdued a generation. That will be my legacy.”
Alright, calm down, you handsome git. You didn’t get anyone to shut up — mainstream music was moving in that direction with or without you. “Subdued a generation?” Ugh.
That being said, I actually really like James Blake. CMYK and Klavierwerke were two solid EPs, the former’s title track showcasing Blake’s dance background in one of his most visceral and most well-conceived and the latter demonstrating his penchant for atmosphere. At times, his debut managed both together, and he sharpened his songwriting for his more sophisticated (though not necessarily better) sophomore: “Retrograde” and “Digital Lion” are triumphs. Which, it should be mentioned, are likely so because they have second-in-command Airhead’s fingerprints all over them (his “Pyramid” predates both, and should have probably had a writing credit on both as a result).
Like Drake, he had it in him to release a great album here. He just chose not to. I mean, this is someone with access to Brian Eno (who co-wrote “Digital Lion”, Overgrown’s second-best song), has collaborated with RZA and Chance the Rapper and Trim(bal), promised us a Kanye West collaboration, and could probably get Jay Z (who said something about James Blake being the only non-hip-hop artist he listens to, which makes sense given Jay Z’s growing non-musical sense), Drake (who enlisted James Blake for his OVO Fest) and Beyoncé (who got James Blake to do a one-minute blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interlude on her indie-minded latest) on call if he cashed in a few favours. And for his third album, he decides to make his longest record yet, and to only have one feature from someone who sounds exactly the same as him!!! What was the point? (Also, it’s as if the previous Bon Iver/James Blake collaboration was such a marvel, right?) And, like adding insult to injury, he has Frank Ocean around to co-write two songs; I guess he knew Ocean’s soul actually came from someplace genuine, and so wouldn’t let him sing.
It might have been okay if the highlights here matched the highlights of either of his previous records — nope. “Radio Silence” is one of the biggest draws here, certainly not because of that ping-pong drum sound or the mechanical climax wherein James Blake hammers away at one note, or the fact that the rising synths at the 1:33 mark makes it obvious that this is more or less “Retrograde’s” sequel. But I really love what he does with the space here: the fragment of piano; the snippets of tune (“But in my heart / There’s a radio silence going on”; “I don’t know how you feel”).
Similarly, other songs are only good for certain moments or sonics but certainly not for the entire song: the demonic voice whispering “NO LONGER” in the left-channel of “Points”; “I Hope My Life’s” synth bombast. Potential highlights are held back by poor choices, like not doing anything with the “Could you tell me about the early days” sample (at the 1:18 mark) of “Put That Away and Talk to Me”. It just pops up and disappears. The interesting sample driving “I Need a Forest Fire” would have been better without Justin Vernon’s tonguing your ears. The worst/best example: “Two Men Down”, which is the album’s second best, marred by the odd choice of a wolf howling in every single goddamn bar, but there’s no denying Blake’s grasp of tune or atmosphere here; the synths rise slowly like a fog throughout.
But like, the rest is, as mentioned, colorless and tedious, with Blake’s typical lugubriousness added in. “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” is a ballad that’s a re-write his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” without the benefit of Mitchell’s poetry or nearly as much tune. “Waves Know Shores” is another ballad distinguished only by the funereal horns. “Meet You in the Maze” is another ballad that’s a rewrite of “Measurements” (or, if you prefer, Bon Iver’s “Woods”), etc. Burn all the ballads, actually, which are graduates of the Bon Iver school of faux-soul. Shockingly, Frank Ocean is partly responsible for “My Willing Heart”, which begins with this grotesque intro that shifts into a merciless plod. There are no lesser evils.
Going back to my comment about Airhead, with “Retrograde” and “Digital Lion” in mind, it’s no coincidence that Blake’s best has always been collaborations (ie. “Life Round Here”) or covers (“Limit to Your Love” and “A Case of You”) or songs where the samples do a lot of the heavy-lifting (“CMYK” and “The Wilhelm Scream”). Is it?
Let’s go back to that Guardian article:
“It’s immensely flattering when people are influenced by you,” he says. “When I first started copying dubstep rhythms but using gospel-tinged, classically tinged keyboard playing, that was the thing that separated me, but now it’s something that other people do, too. The whole night-time torch-song concept is now basically a pastiche. I had to move on from whatever gimmick made me different and just write better songs.”
Well, where are these better songs?
“To put it bluntly, I’ve been validated… Beyoncé wants me to sing on her record. Everyone wants me to sing. I’ve had my confidence broken down and built back up and I think I’m in this zone where everything I do feels OK.”
Okay isn’t okay enough, sometimes, okay?