After a string of highly praised EPs and singles, including last year's excellent Klavierwerke, 23 year old British singer/producer/DJ wunderkind James Blake is ready for his close-up. On his eponymous debut you'll be hard-pressed to find a fully fleshed out verse-chorus-bridge song. Some contain only one verse, like "I Never Learnt To Share," in which Blake simply repeats the lines "My brother and my sister don't speak to me/But I don't blame them" over fluid, shifting musical landscapes. When other electronic artists skimp on structure, it can feel lazy. One of the reasons Blake gets away with it is that unlike his many contemporaries from DJ culture, he can really sing.
It's a fairly common move to utilize an electronic tool kit and dance oriented collaborators to enliven folky, flat sounds with the requisite four on the floor beats, skips, pops and glitches. Neil Young, Everything But the Girl, The Postal Service and Sufjan Stevens are just a few of many examples. But keep in mind, Blake is doing this to himself. When he tortures his vocals, throws grooves out of sync and uses dissonant harmonies, it's not the work of some Svengali producer trying to update the sound of an established artist. This is how Blake wants to sound and his commitment to abstraction runs deep.
Blake has been given a hard time by dubstep purists for being the pretty face that may push this grimy sub-genre into the light. No less a figure than Geoff Barrow of Portishead has dismissed him as a mere "pub singer." It's an unfair dig. Yes, you can hear the makings of a traditional singer/songwriter underneath the white noise and it's hard to imagine Blake delivering this material live. But after eleven tunes worth of his minimalist aesthetic, you have to marvel at Blake's consistency. He marries neo-soul melodicism with industrial beats and blips in an absolutely seamless way. In a genre dominated by singles, Blake has made a real record here. The moments of startling tunefulness are part of what make this hybrid successful. Blake gives you just enough familiar ground to stand on, but also delights in knocking your expectations off balance, frequently just as youre getting comfortable.
"Limit To Your Love," the album's first single, is the kind of song that could save pop radio from the canny calculations of Dr. Luke and Bruno Mars. It's a cover of a Feist tune, but Blake completely recasts it as a spooky, meditative groove, like a modern version of Bill Withers' "Aint No Sunshine." In a perfect world, this is a game-changing pop moment. We'll see what happens in the real one.
Just about all the songs work here, but like all great albums, it's not about songs, it's about a fully realized whole, re-affirming the validity of the full-length, for those who have the talent and single-minded vision to pull it off.
Ultimately, what's most impressive about Blake is the sound of his silence. Throughout the album, there are long pauses, some fully mute, some filled with reverb-drenched breaths or the sound of Blake taking his foot off the piano pedal. Blake knows full well you're hanging on his next move and his confidence that you'll wait 10 seconds for it makes you feel you're in good hands. We absorb so much filler on a normal listening day. Relentless open hi-hats, wall-to-wall guitars, pounding tom-tom fills to plug in every hole. Blake reminds us of the power of what's left unsung, what notes are left out.