, February 2nd, 2011 05:42
Blame that BBC poll if you will, but there has been something of a rush to judgement with this James Blake album, and one that seems to have spun people out to the furthest polarities. Radio 1 and NME evidently regard this boyishly handsome 23-year-old North Londoner and former Goldsmiths student as the right sort of "young auteur" figure ideal to sell an underground sound - in this case, the now rather well-established but somewhat faceless UK garage offshoot, dubstep - to a faintly curious mainstream audience without scaring the horses in the process. Others have jumped on Blake as a depressing case study of the way divergent musical genres have to be made over Snog, Marry, Avoid-style in acceptably bland Topman garms before press and radio dare give it any credence. Or, as my august hosts here at The Quietus put it, rather cattily, "Fran Healey R&B" - and somewhere, possibly, Fran Healey is sat there wincing, feeling a bit hard done by.
Being a somewhat irritating let's-play-devil's-advocate sort, I tend to find the best way of dealing with records like James Blake is to sit on them a bit, give them a couple of spins a week without any real intent, and see what happens. The first thing I wish to report is that sonically speaking - and sorry if this is old news to you here, zeitgeist-surfers - this album is not, not in any way shape or form, a dubstep record. If you count dubstep as the early productions of Horsepower Productions, Kode9 or Digital Mystikz, or even lauded latecomers like Shackleton or wobble brothers Caspa and Rusko, James Blake doesn't really fit in anywhere. In reality, what we have here is a collection of songs - rather simple singer-songwriter songs, steeped in rather traditional and well-worn forms like folk and soul, rhythm 'n' blues and gospel, but channelled through modern kit: synths, vocoders, sequencers and drum machines. They're songs bent out of shape by technology, twisted and treated - but for the most part still retaining their essential shape.
Which isn't to say that Blake's assertion to be "in the dubstep scene", as he told the Guardian, is all hot air. Since its coronation as the brand of forward-thinking dance music in the UK, producers working around dubstep's banner have shown themselves to be almost flighty in their forward thinking, desperate not to be seen embracing inertia - and the rhetoric follows suit: see that rash of new tags, 'wonky', 'future garage' and the like. Blake's earliest EPs, the likes of The Bells Sketch and Klavierwerke flit enjoyably around such a template, and if you squint, you can see how James Blake might have grown from it too. The deeper end of dubstep inverts acid house's 'together as one' communion in favour of a sort of rave of the interior - see the slogan of Brixton's DMZ, "Come meditate on bass weight", encouraging an atmosphere where hoods go up and heads bow down before shuddering speakers. Elsewhere, producers like Burial and Darkstar have mined deep into dubstep's dark upper layer and extracted emotions long-buried in the lower strata, blanched-out echoes of the good times once enjoyed in the halcyon days of jungle and 2step garage. Consider that solipsism and downbeat emotion are basically the building blocks of the singer-songwriter, add to this that Blake is ripe for a bit of the cabin-dwelling misery of Bon Iver and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and suddenly James Blake starts to make a lot of sense.
It never makes more sense than on 'Limit To Your Love'. It is a cover of a Feist song, and it should be pointed out that a lot of the phrasing and cadence comes straight from her version. Regardless, though, it is very good, a masterclass in the use of space and silence to create a sense of emotional heaviness - just a brush of piano, the clack of percussion, and a ghostly aura of sub bass that gives the song a subliminal weight.
In a sense, though, I think 'Limit...'s success is James Blake's first problem. Before playing the record, I assumed it would be 'the ballad', but instead it is 'the template'. Which is to say that as a whole, this record is sparse in the extreme, often rather flimsy, and never once matches the power of its first single. It comes closest with 'Wilhelm's Scream', a mournful song of lost love undercut with gentle, almost imperceptible synth bubbles and the occasional echo-soaked sonar thunk that suggest Blake might not have seen dry land, let alone his absent sweetheart, for six long months. Also worthy of investigation is a track in two movements, 'Lindesfarne I' and 'II'. In the first, Blake plugs in his vocoder and goes a bit 'O Superman', his soft, folkish words frozen into sharp, robotic digital. In the second, the vocoder is turned down, and quiet guitar and drum-pad beats played at a slight, eddying tempo create a serene effect.
Elsewhere, though, we learn that Blake, while often an intuitive producer, is not a songwriter of much skill, and seems to have struck on the idea of multi-tracking vocals to paper over the flaws. 'Measurements' attempts to build into a sort of gospel chorus with extensive use of overlaid voices, but part of the delight of gospel is the way different, distinct vocals criss-cross and intermingle - here, we have four or five James Blakes, and the effect falls some way short of spiritual. 'I Never Learnt To Share', meanwhile, finds Blake at his most bleating, repeating the same line - "My brother and my sister don't speak to me / But I don't blame them..." - over and over; after hearing it for the seventh or eighth time, you're left thinking, nah, I don't blame them either, bruv. Worse still is the musical backdrop, a string of rambling jazz-funky keyboard runs that finally builds to a climax provoking a similar ratcheting nausea to my last migrane.
Elsewhere, other tracks try to vault the gap between song and dance tracks, and fall between. 'Why Don't You Call Me' finds Blake deconstructing his own song as he sings it, vocals manipulated Burial-style, pitched up and down, chopped up and scattered - but the result feels so preoccupied with process, it fails to coalesce. 'To Care (Like You)' and 'I Mind' are the closest the record comes to proper dance tracks, locking intricate percussion to shuddering, Basic Channel bass, but even then, they come out sounding undercooked, grooves deployed rather listlessly and cast off just when they feel like they're going somewhere.
And that's the feeling that lingers after the record has drawn to a close. There remains plenty to admire about a figure like Blake, one who skirts the margins of genres, keen to develop his own voice. But Lord knows what a broader audience, tempted in by the Sound Of 2011 hype and curious to dip their toe in this exciting new genre called dubstep, will make of this rather anaemic record. Dance music for bedwetters, they might decide. And from here it would be difficult to disagree.