Amid all the praise there’s also a slight sense of a backlash when it comes to the music of James Blake, who just released his third album, The Colour in Anything (2016), via Republic Records. The sad-sack UK singer-songwriter began his career softly with the odd EP here and there from 2010 through 2011, with idiosyncratic and artistically geeky titles like The Bells Sketch (2010), CMYK (2010) and Klavierwerke (2010), released on smallish labels like Hessle Audio and R&S Records, respectively. His music was multi-layered and full of the glitchy micro-electronics of a producer who may be shy about revealing too much or putting his vocals up front for a prolonged period of time. But something happened on the way to his 2010 debut full-length, appropriately titled James Blake, and his eventually earning a coveted Mercury Prize in 2013.
The difficult and obtuse parts of his early singles morphed into a more confident style that expressed fragility and intimacy through his digitized and soulful high falsetto. It seemed he was reveling in the elegiac waters. Frankly, there’s always a lot of jealousy in the music industry and talk of who is selling out and who is keeping it real. In a sense, Blake was just finding his voice, as all artists must, and his ever-increasing fan base is the better for it. He’s chosen to lead The Colour in Anything with the gut-wrenching single “I Need a Forest Fire” — one of the best songs he’s penned. Bon Iver/aka Justin Vernon adds vocals to the song and the two gentle-voiced men turn it into a real conflagration of soulful modal strutting. There’s a real power in the song’s torchy simplicity and musical repetition. It’s a track about searching for the type of rejuvenation that occurs in the regrowth after you burn the whole house down.
The new record features appearances from Frank Ocean, Connan Mockasin and production by legend Rick Rubin, who has worked with artists as varied as Kanye West and Tom Petty. Plus, Blake has worked with artists like Beyoncé on Lemonade (2016) and Vince Staples this year. But Blake proves once again he can also reach heights without the help. Nearly as good as “I Need a Forest Fire” is “Put That Away and Talk to Me”, the inflection and melody of the second half of the phrase tightropes delicately with the cavernous echoes and music box sounds in the backdrop. There’s a lot of cool experimentation on this LP, the opening track, “Radio Silence” centers around the phrase, “I can’t believe you don’t want to sleep”, and changes from ballad to mid-tempo halfway into the song, mixing sullen piano chords and repeated synth. But perhaps it’s the most simple track, the love song “f.o.r.e.v.e.r”, that best encapsulates the record. There’s a freedom and ease to it, resting in a less synthetic vocal and pure piano chords. Note: The LP is streaming via Spotify. Follow Blake via twitter. — David D. Robbins Jr.