During the last week of 2008, Animal Collective fans began declaring the band’s eighth album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the best of 2009 — before the year had even begun. It had leaked, of course, like so many records had in the past decade. But it was perhaps the first time the internet’s rogue distribution system allowed for this particular phenomenon: the ability to hear and canonize an album even before the calendar year of its release. Indeed, some 12 months later, many critics’ year-end lists would echo those early listeners’ enthusiasm.
A similar thing started happening for James Blake when his record leaked in December, but a number of things make his case a bit different. For one, his album leaked a week even earlier than Animal Collective’s, and while Post Pavilion was released at the very tip of 2009, Blake’s record isn’t even due until February 2011. Not to mention James Blake is his debut LP — and not the work of a band of experienced songwriters, but rather a single 22-year-old Brit fresh out of art school. Which is to say, the stakes are higher across the board.
It’s a lot of pressure, to be sure, but Blake seems made for it — as if the mounting anticipation for this album weren’t something he’d been carefully orchestrating himself for more than a year. Buzz surrounding his name has been growing exponentially since 2009’s debut 12-inch for “Air & Lack Thereof,” especially thanks to the incredible triptych of EPs he issued over the course of 2010. The amorphous Bells Sketch established the young man as one of the most compelling and unorthodox dubstep DJs around; CMYK added pop immediacy and heavy bangers to his palette; and Klavierwerke reintroduced him as a meditative pianist and sound painter. We at Tiny Mix Tapes bent the rules of our year-end albums list to accommodate the EPs, and we were not alone in doing so.
Then came James Blakes’ lead single “Limit to Your Love,” which dramatically revealed the artist’s gorgeous singing voice and talent on the keys (both skills were put to use on the EPs, but in such thickly treated and minimal ways that most listeners thought they were samples anyway). The song retained elements of his previous aesthetics, while remaining completely unexpected as a first glimpse into a James Blake long-player. Even weirder was the fact that it was a spare dub cover of a Feist torch song from 2007’s The Reminder. Curiosities piqued.
“Limit to Your Love,” interestingly enough, proves to be a pretty accurate representation of Blake. There are no other covers, but the record likewise finds the barren maturity of Blake’s voice and lyrics coming to the fore. The damaged R&B influence found only in samples on CMYK is instead fleshed out by Blake’s own vocal cords, sometimes left to flourish in lovely, polyphonic clarity (as on the closing “Measurements”), otherwise smothered by Bells Sketch’s shades of digital perversion (opener “Unluck” develops a claustrophobic beat that suggests the canned shake and spray of graffiti). Klavierwerke’s focus on the piano is further expanded, especially in brief and bare stunners like “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “Give Me My Month.” It’s the kind of natural progression from his previous work that one might expect, given what came before it — but considering many great artists take years only to plainly regress, the speed at which he’s evolving makes Blake a very rare specimen indeed.
The highlights here are subtle, but many. The Imogen Heap-inspired “Lindisfarne” realizes the failed potential of sad robot concept albums like Human After All and 808s & Heartbreak in just two movements, while the beautiful opening trio is surpassed only by the closing duet of the supremely vocal “I Mind” and “Measurements” (the former manipulating Blake’s hum into a hypnotically parabolic rhythm, the latter simply piling the voices on like a church choir). It’s a desperately lonely set of songs that will certainly take time to settle, but there could be no better time to start doing so than the dead of winter.
Either way, we’re left with even more questions than we had beforehand. How much of this masterful build was pre-planned? How much of Blake, Klavierverke, CMYK et al. was written long before being released? Are these different sides to Blake’s genius, carefully exposed in themed sets at pointed intervals, or has he simply been releasing this incredible music at whatever incredible pace it’s been coming to him? The mystique surrounding the young prodigy winds up looming larger than ever, the multiple obscured faces of Blake’s cover portrait a very keen and poignant metaphor. No matter how much he ultimately decides to reveal, I await his next step with bated breath.