From the musician who aggregated prestige by overhauling the shades of dubstep comes a sophomore full-length that examines the boundaries of pop and soul through his own refracted prism of ingenuity. The formula James Blake subsumed on his 2011 self-titled debut allowed him to consider sonic provinces that ran deeper than any of his earlier, sample-heavy experimentation, and his music sounded more emotionally engaging as a consequence. Although his first LP sparkled incessantly with opulent treatments, loops, cuts, and keys — on “To Care (Like You)” and “I Mind,” in particular — there were also some spectacular moments when the London artist’s dexterity on piano outshone any electronic production (I’m thinking of “Give Me My Month” here). Such profundity proved more heartfelt and exquisite than anything on Klavierwerke, his excellent 2010 EP whose title literally translates to “Piano Works,” and that was mostly indebted to the gorgeous vocals that accompanied his sound. Overgrown not only indulges grandiose collaboration with RZA and Brian Eno in transcending the fringes of pop, soul, and hip-hop, but it also embraces Blake’s talent as a pianist and a singer in ways that exceed expectations.
Overgrown also acts as a marker. Across the breadth of Blake’s outflow, there appears to be an emerging pattern, where his overtly unconventional production is confined to EP emit and deluxe editions. It’s a safe move, and it comes with consequence: his work with Bon Iver was a pensive but aesthetically flat riddle that played on each musicians’ Auto-Tune escapades in a berserk litmus test of garbled voice that left little to the imagination, though its inquisitiveness was arguably closer to the The Bells Sketch than any single track on James Blake. If album material, therefore, retains the dominant stride stylistically, the man responsible is further fracturing his image as a dubstep poster boy while carrying his music into spheres that would otherwise whiff of adult contemporary. What makes that an assenting paradigm, should it prove to become one, is that he has demonstrated inextricable promise in displacing key formulas within familiar musical styles before tampering with them to create something potent and memorable. Blake is an innovator, keen to shift his ideas to higher planes while retaining shards of the audio fragments he is citing. Those references operate as pullquotes in some sonic tapestry that touches on loneliness, solitude, and lust while embellishing the bass drops of dubstep or the influence of gospel rhythms. Through placing them so methodically in his compositions, he creates a great sense of awareness, comfort, and empathy in the midst of a sound that is bold and tactile.
Blake’s debut gained him plenty of recognition from established artists he has since worked closely with. Even Drake reportedly had a vinyl copy of the LP displayed in his recording studio during the Take Care sessions, which is an indication of how far its influence stretched. Since then, Blake has mentioned that he enjoys meeting his collaborators and sharing ideas with them before coming together to work on a song. That means different things though, depending on what format the final product will take; as we have seen, when the collaboration is intended to feature on a full-length, the relationship should be anything but flitting. That feeling of closeness or artistic adjacency is not only reflected lyrically on Overgrown, but it’s fully brought to the fore on “Digital Lion,” one of the album’s defining tracks. Blake discussed his time hanging out with Eno, drinking tea and listening to Sam Cooke records while bouncing concepts back and forth for the number they produced: it’s a pace-shifting minimal techno piece that laces wavering synths amid rattling percussion and that unmistakable croon; guitar strings bridge a drum-heavy section before an elegant refrain and the lion’s imminent roar. Despite its fragmented sections, the result is a charming example of how, when there is a lack of acoustic instrumentation, Blake manipulates vocal textures to create something utterly transfixing — it’s a warm and insightful cohesion of minds that demonstrates just how concise the artist’s songwriting has become.
Such innovative gregariousness is also present on the album’s second collaboration, “Take A Fall For Me,” which features RZA rapping a curious set of lines between Blake’s gentle vocals: “He can’t marry her yet,” purrs the latter, while the Wu-Tang foregrounder spits rhymes about “Candle light dinners and fish and chips with vinegar” and how he “wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid,” which I can only presume is an off-key cultural exchange of sorts. In spite of its questionable use of colloquialisms, the track is alive and brimming with energy, Blake branching out even further and consequently finding new means of projecting the sadness that lingers in his voice, this time as a contrast to the cavernous and forceful snap of one of hip-hop’s most venerable producers. Despite venturing into novel territory, Overgrown still exhibits an outpouring of emotion bar any restraint, which plays out wonderfully in terms of pace, tone, and scope. My favorite example is on “I Am Sold,” which is a haunted, piano-driven duet that sends shivers down my spine after every listen, especially when the chorus collides with the record’s primordial bass drop.
Yet despite the abstruse prowess here, one of the most precious sections arrives on “DLM,” which is almost exclusively Blake singing at his piano. “Please don’t let me hurt you more,” he pines, divulging the track’s acronym over a gracious melody that builds into some rapturous ghost choir of mixed pitches before subsiding into soft, repetitive keys that gently fluctuate as “Digital Lion” kicks in. It’s a stunning reminder of the human element that Blake leaves amidst his wake of technical aptitude, which also occurs when he belts the first line of chorus on the lead single, “Retrograde.” Those anthropic moments balance the mechanical nature of the heady buildup on “Life Round Here” and the metallic jibe of “Voyeur,” which is by far the loudest and most intense number on the album. It’s a divisive tactic that sees a shift in pace while complementing the drained and crushing dirge of “To the Last,” where Blake’s incredible voice peaks against what could easily be the heartbeat of a Polaroid processor.
Overgrown is set to generate Blake more exposure within mainstream channels, where “Retrograde” was premiered as the “Hottest Record in the World” on Zane Lowe’s Radio1 show, and high-brow conservative broadsheets are publishing solid reviews, the bulk of which are sure to unfold just in time to kick off the festival circuit. But that was always inevitable, wasn’t it? When a singer/songwriter of this caliber puts refined and emotional pop music on a level playing field with inventive beat production that establishes trends and cuts like a knife, it’s always going to provoke a reaction from commercial outlets. Only in this case, it’s warranted: Overgrown is a remarkable effort from an artist who continues to do things his own way, regardless of the consequences.