Album Review: James Blake – James Blake

By on Tuesday, 15th February 2011 at 12:00 pm

Words by Natalie Stas

With peculiar austerity, haunting patchworks of melancholy, and awkward bursts of electronic soul, the trajectory of James Blake‘s minimal sound in his highly anticipated eponymous debut album into the mainstream still remains a mystery to most. There is nothing superfluous to his earthy and raw electronicism. Blake might have major label sparkle behind him, but you can almost hear the bass bouncing from his university bedroom walls. His sound becomes a musical aesthetic, carving new space in popular music by stripping songs back to their elements, allowing tense silences to sit in the heart of every track. For many, it may seem unsettling to merely “let the song be”, but Blake makes this a trademark of his production.

Lead track ‘Unluck’ features jarring disjointed beats, swinging chords become gradually eroded by a swamping electronically treated vocal. This is not going to be everyone’s favourite track, but it wholly captures Blake as an artist – he doesn’t smooth out imperfections or rush to fill silence, fragments and the distortion become his essence. It is not instantly recognisable, or likeable for that matter, but it is evidence of Blake’s ability to ignore the constraints of commercialism.

‘I Never Learnt to Share’ adopts a similar non-format: vocals resonate in shadows, melodies start and stop and there is no room for listeners to get comfortable. The track gradually unfolds a riled sense of regret in the unnerving vocal repetition mixed with bland church organ chords and an uneasy arrangement of synths. Finally, we stop to notice the robotic drum beat before continuing to burst from the bleak as speakers blast with an unprecedented bass line, a cathartic release from Blake’s non-indulgent tendencies.

Perhaps the most commercially viable and recognisable of his tracks is the cover of Feist‘s ‘Limit to Your Love’, a brave move for a new boy to cover a song with such a cult indie following. I instantly wanted to hate it for that reason alone, but I couldn’t. Actually, it was brilliant. Blake manages to capture the fragility of Feist’s piano, draw out the emotive silences and laces it an honest, delicate vocal. Even with the window-shattering bass rumbles, it still remains a beautifully soulful track.

Blake’s triumphs in engineering dead-space is only matched by his ability to effortlessly capture a sound belonging completely to this moment. It is hard to say where his music will sit within the industry in 5 or 10 years, but right now he has brought originality to minimalism, and his electronic dub sits in the forefront of today’s changing face of commercial music.


James Blake’s self-titled debut album is available now from Polydor Group.

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