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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

James Blake: Overgrown (Release Date: 4-9-2013)

        I love James Blake, but there was a point when I wasn't even sure I liked him. The UK musical prodigy first saw his work zooming across the internet in 2010, releasing a trio of EPs that witnessed no shortage of adulation. His looping, sample-heavy compositions flew right in the face of the riotous sound attack of the dominant American Dub-step scene, inviting listeners to choose a side in a genre at war with itself. Blake's earlier work was easier for me to appreciate than enjoy, which is perhaps why his self-titled debut LP came as such a surprise. The then-22-year-old stepped out of the producer's chair and walked straight up to the mic, dolling out an down-trodden electro-croon atop minimal beats that re-contextualized the wobble bass forever more. Today marks the release of his sophomore full-length, Overgrown, a disc destined to be seen as a swivel-point in Blake's duplicitous career. Would the soulful club-jammer return to his swirling, swelling, dance club dub, or travel further down the path of space-age R&B, and singer-songwriter rhetoric? The answer, somewhat mystifyingly, is both: a lot of both.

        One of the things that made James Blake such a unique, enveloping experience was its thematic clarity, the entire disc existing in the very same sound-world, one track flowing seamlessly into the next. This couldn't be further from the truth on Overgrown, an LP with a tendency to throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks. The hushed, contemplative title track/opener isn't even cold by the time follow-up I Am Sold is getting ready to party, a precipitous beat growing steadily out of unapologetic piano ballad fare. The two songs, as well as the album at large, share that same dusty, nocturnal quality that often characterizes Blake's work, but that's about where the similarities end. It's exciting to see such a talented young artist continue to push into new directions, but the lack of cohesion can make Overgrown feel less like an album, and more like a collection of songs.

        Introspective James gets to shine on the aforementioned Overgrown, as well as comparatively stripped-down soul-bearer Dlm, and twin down-tempo closers To The Last and Our Love Comes Back.  Rug-cutting James takes a spin on I Am Sold and dense, movement-prompting early singles Digital Lion and Voyeur (both stand-out tracks). As if the battle for the guy's musical identity wasn't complicated enough, Blake manages to split the difference on Life Round Here, and even invites RZA to rap over the hazy march of Take a Fall For Me. This sudden insertion of hip-hop is a major curve-ball, and I expect many to have the same wait-am-I-still-listening-to-the-new-James-Blake? gut-reaction that I experienced. It's an easy concept to root for, but while Blake's beat is more than up to the challenge, RZA's lyrics are not. Not that the words themselves have to be the primary valuation of a hip-hop performance, but hearing the Wu-Tang luminary reel off lines like, "Turn a square dance into a passion-hug," and, "Tender as the finger-touch of a new-born kid/I wouldn't trade her smile for a million quid," is jarring to say the least.

        Then there's Retrograde, Overgrown's lead single, and the best song of Blake's career thus far. Building out of almost nothing before turning it up to 11 just after the minute-and-a-half mark, the song's mysterious structure plateaus into crashing tidal waves of synths, trapping us inside of its white-knuckle grip. It's a track that balances beauty with intensity, new technology with olden structures, and just about every genre James Blake has touched up to this point (which is most of them, right?). That strange brew the troubadour seems to be working on for the entirety of the album is tantalizingly whole for all of 3:44, and then it's gone, sending index fingers racing for the, 'replay,' button.

        Overgrown is an album of growing pains, the work of an artist reaching for something truly transcendent. As Blake admits on that creaky, minimal title-track, "(He doesn't) want to be a star/But a stone on the shore/Long door, frame the wall/When everything's overgrown." If all the British wunderkind wanted was to continuously see his name up in lights, then following the exact path of previous success had to be his safest route. But Blake is more interested in the long run, being the rock that remains firm despite the continuous turning of the tides, a necessary element in a world full of disposable excess. It's a more-than-worthy goal, and I for one think the guy's got the chops to do it, but you don't get there by walking in a straight line. Overgrown might be something of a step back from James Blake, but it shows that one of music's most singular and wildly-talented voices is on the right track, and doesn't mind getting his hands a little dirty in order to stay there.

Grade: B

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