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Review: James Blake, ‘Overgrown’

James Blake
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 09, 2013
Label: Universal Republic

You might be forgiven for thinking there were two diametrically separate artists named James Blake. First, there’s the dubstep l’enfant terrible who, starting in the summer of 2009 and spanning all of 2010, released a 12-inch transmission nearly every quarter. Then came the soulful English bloke who put out a sparse, self-titled album in early 2011, seated at a piano and singing renditions of hits from Leslie Feist and Joni Mitchell (as well as a tune from his own father), vacillating between a quavering falsetto and a deeper vibrato with sprinklings of Auto-Tune.

Blake’s early singles revealed a dubstep producer operating at a high metabolism — from the woozy spaces of “Air & Lack Thereof” to the spastic “refix” of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills” to the distorted twitches of “The Bells Sketch,” and wrapping with the more ascetic warpage of “Klavierwerke,” He fidgeted and fussed with the outermost edges of that South London-rooted sound, his tracks quirky yet adept, even if they weren’t anthemic or floor-filling in the traditional sense. But as the year went on, he slowed his own velocity, effectively halving the young genre’s wobbly, syncopated, double-timed BPM range. Rather than fulfill the promise of a dynamic new talent, this stuff instead revealed a more restive mind at work, one that was burning through the confines of dubstep rather than being defined by them. As for the James Blake who came next, he was an emotive crooner who drew inspiration not from the Amys and Adeles of his homeland, but from another British soul singer: Antony Hegarty. He was as vested in his own voice as in the sound of the negative space surrounding each exhalation and sustained piano line.

“If you listened to those EPs,” Blake told one interviewer, “you probably would have recognized that I was going to move on.” In the same interview, he also admitted, “I’ve never felt like I was a soul singer. It’s not really who I am.” A dubstep producer who disengaged from the genre track by track until his stuff no longer scanned as dance music. A soul singer who is not. How appropriate then that James Blake‘s cover was a portrait of the man with two faces. So which of these guys is responsible for Overgrown?

It’s rare that both identities appear at the same moment, but when both halves of James Blake do converge on his second full-length, they offer a glimpse of a consummate artist. The titular opener gives us our most sumptuous view yet: A slow smolder of a track built around chary piano chords and wordless vocal enunciations, it widens into a gorgeous swell of programmed strings, cymbals, and Blake’s evocative plaint at the spare but resonant chorus: “I don’t want to be a star / But a stone on the shore / A lone door framed in a wall / When everything is overgrown.” Similarly, on “Retrograde,” our host is in full command, needing little more than his croon and some handclaps; when an analog synth crests at the song’s peak, it’s as stark and stirring as anything in his back catalog.

The crux of James Blake in singer-songwriter mode is that beyond the cover material of his first album, his own muse was threadbare. Take his debut’s “I Never Learnt to Share,” which taxed its 16 syllables well beyond the breaking point, its confessional if rote line serving as verse, bridge, and chorus, leaving his newfound voice to do all the heavy lifting. The result was precocious yet precious, Blake emoting with a quivering lip rather than a stiff upper one. Instead of revealing his formidable gifts as a producer, he favored austerity.

Less “The Wilhelm Scream” than “The Maudlin Warble,” that fussiness over space is relaxed a hair on Overgrown. “I Am Sold” again finds Blake taking a scant lyric and exploring its ductile properties, mimicking Antony with every swooped-upon syllable, but he’s sensible enough now to add supporting lines and a plunging bass. Same for “Life Round Here”: Blake the drum programmer appears to accentuate the boom-tick with crisp hi-hat figures and undulating synth-bass vamps, revealing an appreciation for Timbaland’s R&B production circa Destiny’s Child.

Despite the album’s title, “unkemptness” will never be the sort of adjective used to describe either version of James Blake. It’s easy to envision him pruning and meticulously manicuring every aspect of his sound. So it’s strange that Overgrown‘s biggest fault is lack of quality control; it’s an uneven listen, with peaks like “Retrograde” segueing into the quotidian piano recital of “DLM,” with an undistinguished back half that doesn’t linger in the mind afterward.

And then there’s “Take a Fall for Me,” a wholly WTF collaboration with the RZA. It’s hard to fathom Blake the hothouse flower hearing mid-’90s Wu bangers like “Ice Cream” or the hair-product placement of “Black Shampoo” and thinking they were ideal source material for romantic mixtape fodder. Or, in hearing RZA’s Bobby Digital persona, felt he was in the presence of the next Teddy Pendergrass. And yet here we are, the fragility of love rendered by the Man with the Iron Fists, oblivious to the beat as he raps about love as a metaphor for being crushed by a squid. The track’s lone joy lies in deciding which line is the most ludicrous: RZA ordering fish and chips with a glass of “cold” stout? Comparing love to a square dance? Enunciating the phrase “Italian peninsula”? Or going on us to rap to about “a million quid”?

Blake’s other noteworthy collaborator here, Brian Eno, fares far better on “Digital Lion.” The highlight of the album’s second half, it’s an exhilarating hybrid of gospel moans and roiling jungle snares, though it’s difficult to pinpoint just what Eno contributed to the track. Is it that weird blown conch sound? The menacing synth lurking behind it? Or perhaps he simply delivered an Oblique Strategy reading, and convinced Blake to embrace his inner dance producer more often.