James Blake The Colour In Anything

[Universal/Polydor; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: a cuckoo in a hedge-sparrow’s nest
Others: Hejira, SW London pirate radio

“There is a whole aspect of love and a relationship on [Overgrown]. When it’s long distance, it’s slightly tragic. There is this kind of ‘we only have these moments together’ intensity. I’ve waited this long to find something like that, and when I did it was far away.”
– James Blake, in an interview with Clash

All of James Blake’s albums have been impacted by either the absence or the presence of love in his life. On his latest album, any of his associated feelings, expectations, and misconceptions are made more abrupt and pronounced than they are on any other, which makes for a conflicted but inspiring listen. And even if his musical inspirations may have remained relatively similar — Joni Mitchel, SW London pirate radio, and everything in between — the central defining aspect of The Colour In Anything, at least from an outside perspective, is the act of waiting.

The distinction between waiting for something to happen to you and waiting for something to come from within you is tricky to measure. In the case of the former, there is an unparalleled desire to try and understand why an event or an action hasn’t yet happened, but that disassociation might grant momentary solace in knowing how little can often be done to achieve a resolution. In the case of the latter, that terminal waiting for something, anything, to emerge from within is easier to fathom when a solution arises by chance. But it may also be frustrating for an artist: the result is ultimately dependent on direct input, but it can trigger unexpected responses whenever it doesn’t materialize.

When Blake found himself in a creative stalemate while sitting at his piano, the instinctive response was to share what he had produced with a select group of potential collaborators. That wasn’t an easy decision, and the London-based musician spoke with The Guardian recently about how making this choice had an impact on his music and shaped the path of his third full-length. He understood the implications that this would have for his work, even remarking on the bitterness of critics when he moved away from the profound aesthetic that gave rise to CMYK, Klavierwerke, and The Bells Sketch. Spending time in the US proved beneficial in shortening that chapter of waiting and allowed any creative pressure to subside, but those early writing sessions appear to have bruised The Colour In Anything beyond reproach. Initially, Blake could not attune his body or mind into conveying a reaction to whatever he was feeling, and regardless of who he has worked with on these songs since, that interpretation is ever-present.

Perhaps that perception is strengthened by the cover art from Sir Quentin Blake, a British illustrator responsible for helping visualize the most widely-known Roald Dahl stories. QB is renowned for having worked on an impossible number of publications, making it tough to generalize a style that precisely characterizes his work, but certainly his work for this album adheres to the frequently graceless flair that he uses to animate Dahl’s often spindly, disheveled characters. To some, QB’s work immediately recalls childhood flashbacks of The Twits or Matilda, of stories with a tangled and perplexing dynamic drawing on revenge or neglect. While it doesn’t seem to represent a direct harking back to childhood for Blake, he does allude to age, change, and time in his lyrics: “I can’t be selfless/ I’m acting my age,” he sings on “Timeless,” and “We live too long to be so loved” on “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” These feelings transcend nostalgia, drifting toward an internal negotiation between his present state and an alternate headspace, perhaps (as the image could indicate) one that’s in the past, that makes the waiting game a little less terrifying without relying so heavily on outside input.

But however one might interpret the act of working with others, the close collaborations and guest spots work well on the album. As Blake’s current girlfriend “walked into [his] life” and apparently changed it for the better, so too did Frank Ocean, Rick Rubin, and longtime collaborator Justin Vernon. Curiously, when they appear on this record, it’s the passive waiting sensation that becomes especially pronounced. Take the tender orchestration that gently rebounds between the dominating percussion on “My Willing Heart” or the ambivalence in the lyrics of “Always” that deal with fate; the sense of waiting here feels like it’s being forcibly trampled out by the artist, who is actively looking to discount it through outside influence while retaining its personal sentiment. Such an unsettling tension sometimes seems obstinate and private, like looking in on an internalized moment of transition where ideas about composition are in the process of resolute overhaul, where the atmosphere begins to shape the playback experience as a cohesive whole, making sense of the fluctuations in style and indeed the album’s duration.

As an inferred approach, forcefulness consequently creates an additional layer of rigidity between Blake’s compressed lyrical tendencies and his compositional traits. Ever since his debut, the piano-driven tracks — “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “Dlm,” in particular — embody the skeleton of even his most layered, exclusively electronic music. Yet when his experiences are stripped down in this way, they cut closest to the bone from an emotional standpoint. This technique is best demonstrated here on “f.o.r.e.v.e.r,” which offsets the intensity of the previous track, permitting Blake to exercise his vocal talents while absolutely solidifying his poise as a producer. But having at once fallen for the simplicity of those tracks, the multi-layered, Rubin-produced “Love Me In Whatever Way” comes across as one of Blake’s most accomplished songs to date. When these and similar tracks are set so closely alongside one another, they assume a brittle awkwardness that highlights an unintentional discomfort in Blake’s work, his work never sounding so vulnerable.

Inevitably, then, doubt too find its way onto the tracklist, both lyrically and aesthetically, with songs that sound like they were at the forefront of that waiting period until reimagined through collaboration. “Two Men Down” (produced by Blake, Vernon, and Rubin) pinpoints the desperation in Blake’s voice well, as though he reaches the pinnacle in his threshold for waiting — “the knuckles that never cracked,” as he puts it. It’s a rough, almost violent inclusion on an album that otherwise lulls in a delightfully hushed swell of procrastination, playing distinctly into the narrative of passive action and the simultaneous desire to communicate. In this sense, The Colour In Anything emphasizes the element of trust that collaboration implies and its role in articulating Blake’s feelings. It’s an act that stresses both our desire to share and our yearning to create, even when we aren’t really sure what it is we want to say — even when we really are just waiting for anything.

Links: James Blake - Universal/Polydor

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