By Rosie Murphy
Overgrown is the second album from former-dubstep producer James Blake, released on April 8th. The chilling vocals of the London musician couples with down-tempo electro beats reminiscent of his self-titled debut, but also suggests a maturation in his approach to life. Whilst its predecessor was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, this timely return appears certain to amass quicker sales based on the artist’s growing popularity in the festival circuit.
Blake looks back on his first album as, “a fractured diary with no direction and absolutely no central idea”. Overgrown on the other hand sees the singer reaching vocal maturity with his poignant falsetto declarations of love and loneliness. The 24-year old admitted to The Guardian that finding love with Warpaint guitarist Theresa Wayman gave way to a depth of emotion for the follow-up. “The uncertainty also did. The uncertainty of the nature of the relationship. The uncertainty of touring. The uncertainty of the music industry, and the uncertainty of my position in it,” he said.
“Uncertainty” is certainly the album’s over-arching theme, both musically and linguistically. Ranging from the melancholy vocals of title track ‘Overgrown’, to the beat-based ‘Digital Lion’, this musical confusion blends to create haunting melodies with emotional depth that is unlike much of the current UK music scene. Listening draws comparisons to former collaborator Bon Iver’s Stems Project or the many remixes of The xx, but there is little here that would make sense in the clubs where Blake made his name.
Blake’s musical past suggests that his unique sounds comes as a result of never finding a ready-made niche to fit. Whilst his self-titled début contained the acclaimed cover ‘Limit To Your Love’, and sampled Joni Mitchell, this follow-up focuses fully on the sole talent of the singer-songwriter. The son of progressive jazz-rock guitarist James Litherland, Blake studied popular music at London’s Goldsmiths before finding solace in the dubstep scene. A square peg in a round hole, perhaps, but Blake is attempting with his second album to jackhammer himself into the industry with little regard to genre.
With high-profile sets such as California’s Coachella festival, there would be an acceptable assumption that Overgrown would display elements of Americanisms for Blake to maximise his appeal Stateside. ‘Take A Fall For Me’ features Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, but the New York rapper makes sure to acknowledge his partner’s heritage as well as his new-found status as a romantic. “Candle light dinners, fish and chips with the vinegar / With a glass of cold stout, old wine or something similar”.
One of the album’s key strengths is the raw emotion of Blake’s soulful songs. He rarely re-records vocals as he feels the intensity of emotion of a track is something to be felt, not rehearsed. He said of stripped-down song ‘DLM’, “As a singer it’s like the more I sing, and the more I record, the more I’ve decided by being a singer you’re just a vessel for your message and whatever you’re trying to evoke. And when you try and come back to something you’re just an empty vessel; you’re not channelling anything, you’re just channelling a new idea of what you think the song might be now”.
It is an uncertain time for the musician in an ever-evolving technological scene. The debut single from Overgrown, ‘Retrograde’ peaked at just 87 in the UK Charts. Written mid-flight on return from girlfriend Theresa’s home of LA, Blake’s sadness and frustration is evident, woefully wailing, “Ignore everybody else / We’re alone now”. Arguably the most radio-friendly part of the album, Blake channels Radiohead circa In Rainbows, with a hint of Frank Ocean. The single’s unidentifiable genre may lead it to struggle in finding a new market of new listeners to (legally) download an individual track on merit. However, with high-profile festival performances such as Coachella, and a European tour lined up for September, the album hopes to find its audience among the traditional live music scene.