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James Blake - James Blake



James Blake’s self-titled debut album was released with a great deal of hype. A now notorious BBC poll, the Sound of 2011, listed this erstwhile ethereal dubstep producer as the runner up of promising new artists. One of my best friends and self-avowed music snob declared that Blake’s album “will get you pregnant.” Quite something, especially for someone who has only been producing music professionally for a few years—and abstract dubstep, to boot. With this notoriety, Blake has had to deal with some backlash from purists who label him a dubstep pub singer. So, the relevant question: Is he the second coming of Christ, or merely an emo pub singer? Is James Blake, in short, worth the hype?

In all honesty, I do think this is a very good album. Much of what I enjoy rests on Blake’s decision to contrast short but sweet vocal hooks with uncluttered, minimalist backgrounds. This is a highly processed vocal album. With the sole exception of the vocal-light “I Mind,” the album presents delicate, restrained backgrounds and that features very little drum programming or thrumming bass. As such, it is not dubstep. Nor is it pop. Instead Blake operates in the space between, using electronic music production methods but foregrounding vocals that seem to float on air. With such airy vocals, he could sing mathematical formulae and I’d still probably love it.

Blake is at his best when he makes dramatic pauses, stops, and silent spaces feel necessary to the music. “Lindesfarne I,” for instance, is an ethereal ballad that makes better use of silence than anything I have heard in a long time. The song’s second part, “Lindesfarne II,” features greater movement, but resolves the somber track in an understated but moving manner. “Limit to Your Love,” a Feist cover, also uses a restrained chorus and silence to dramatic effect. While he incorporates wholesale Feist’s musical phrasing, Blake’s minimal touch—a touch of echo here, a searching piano there—makes this a masterful cover. “Wilhelm’s Scream” does not have the same emphasis on silence, but its restrained build and release also shows Blake’s delicate touch as a producer.  

The downside of silence, however, is that too much is not necessarily a good thing. As such, the album at times feels monotonous or, dare I say, insipid. Had Blake cut down the album by a few tracks, this would have been my runaway vote for album of the year.

As it is, Blake has given us a flawed gem. At times heartbreaking, and delicate, with emotion filling every musical phrase. Always beautiful, though at times a bit too monochromatic. Blake has created a headphone album that allows us to shut ourselves off from the world for nearly forty minutes.

Jeremy Yellen

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