There is something peculiar about the appeal of James Blake. The strange, subsonic world his music occupies doesn't seem fit for frequent visits from the outside. It's too cold and barren, a wasteland of sonic whites and grays, occupied by sparse musical elements and gale force blasts of hypothermic air. It's a place where the very idea of a song has supreme difficulty surviving at times.
Blake's a phenom though; a classically trained pianist, self-made producer, and soul singer who found his way two years ago with the release of a most unique kind of debut album that positioned the British songwriter in similar company with artists like Bon Iver, Florence and The Machine, and Lykke Li; artistic outsiders who found ways to woo the masses with a little bit of what they were used to, and a wealth of which they were not.
In Blake's case, it's his youthful, semi-soulful croon that provides a familiar hook. His is a vibrant and dynamic falsetto, moving up and down the melodic scale in a tortured sort of ease. Blake's production, however, warps that voice, pulling it apart and stitching it back together. His voice is strange, delicate, sucking exasperated gasps of air upon a tank of auto-tune.
To that, Blake adds instrumental accompaniment that puts such frail vocal balance of his songs under album long duress...it's throttled by cavernous tremors from the low end, picked apart by an electronic steam of programming elements, eventually erupting from the cracks and fissures of his compositions and evaporating into the airy nothingness that are a quality of his songs. It's volcanic...easily disturbed by his productions' various twists and turns. It's uneasy, it's tense. It's abstract. Such a production approach weighed heavy on the emotional undertones of songs like "The Wilhelm Scream" and his signature take on Feist's "Limit To Your Love".
Blake's newest single "Retrograde", from his eagerly awaited follow-up Overgrown, once again mimics such previous approaches. The song is built upon peaceful palms of piano, a simple oscillating beat, and Blake's spooked out hum haunting the background of the track. Then, later, a piercing blast of synth. All that was calm is calm no more.
As he did with the songs of his debut, "Retrograde" hides something earnest, genuine, and painful in the tightly sculpted folds of its makeup. It's slim and simple, tempting the kind of exploration that lies just beyond the fringes of what other singer songwriters are doing. As Blake takes steps into woozy whirls of the abstract, he also dips back into more familiar sounding territory, reminiscing of Imogen Heap, Bon Iver, Antony and the Johnsons, or even Squarepusher along the way. Every time his music orbits off course - like that phaser sort of moment on "Retrograde" - it dips back into moments of musical clarity.
So where then is the appeal? For one, no one sounds like James Blake. He's carved out his own unique musical identity, which, to be perfectly honest, is a little shocking in this day and age. Everybody sounds like everybody else...at least a little. More importantly though is the challenge of listening to Blake's balance of both foreign and familiar elements, and exploring the emotional eruptions that bubble up on both sides of that line. It's thrilling. Given the hysteria surrounding his debut two years ago and the coming wave of anticipation for Overgrown, it seems a challenge a lot of music fans are up for.