James Blake is really imprisoning me at the moment. The interesting thing is I know I’m not alone. It’s been a while since an artist has garnered this much hype before the release of any proper LPs. The London producer’s 2010 EPs CMYK, The Bells Sketch, Klavierwerke, and forthcoming debut LP have been on repeat for a while, and justly so. With the EPs, he’s covered a lot of electronica ground in a relatively short time. Chilling explorations through dubstep rhythms, sound collage, dancehall infused house, electro-pop, whatever you want to call it. The fuzzy, hazy, spooked out, blip-laden textures are out of this world. For good reason, the EPs alone would have been enough to tide people over for a while, and they might have, till his debut album prematurely ejaculated all over the interwebs . . .
While beat work was the primary focus on the EPs, with his debut, his vocals take center-stage atop the curious and intriguing production he’s been toying with. This is, by most standards, a soul record. One that, though almost entirely digital in nature (even the vocals are fed through digitized effects and sustained by auto-tune and enhancers), seeps with passionate emotion, from the production to the computerized pipes. In essence, Blake has done what so few computer-age tinkerers have failed at: created an immensely soulful record using techniques and approaches many might describe as cold, sterile, soul-less, and superficial. Some might say there’s little room for raw passion in the mostly-squeaky clean world of digital music, but with his uniquely organic and raw sounding process, Blake is proof enough that people might have just been doing it wrong up until now.
Listeners are comparing Blake to Bon Iver, to me a gross oversimplification that doesn’t give either respective artist enough credit. Bon Iver’s bedroom folk was infused with r&B and soul, making For Emma Forever Ago and Blood Bank gorgeous examples of seamless genre-fusion. Though Blake does a similar thing with electronic music, neither conduct a calculated synthesis. It feels and plays out as natural, mainly because it is. Bon Iver’s Vernon did take it a step toward what Blake is dealing with when he released the now popularized “Woods” (sampled on Kanye’s MBDTF), which is probably where people are thinking the two sound similar. They croon like one another to a certain extent, but I think the vocals recall Antony more than anyone else.
Comparisons and influences aside, James Blake is a must have for anybody interested in witnessing how pop music can and will continue to change, progress, and grow into something new with time. These are some new and exciting sounds. 2011 is going to be a great year.