When we reviewed James Blake's Klavierwerke EP last year one track really stood out for us - 'I Only Know (What I Know Now)' - due to it's minimal approach. The hype machine has been running at full tilt since that EP dropped and Blake's first single-proper from his self-titled debut, a cover of Feist's 'Limit To Your Love', created a bit of a watershed moment.
Fact: James Blake no longer makes dub-step. Actually BlackPlastic would argue he never really did. There are those that see the result as a commercial betrayal of the scene and there are those that see the resulting change in direction as far more innovative and exciting than what would have been possible if Blake had continued to focus on one specific genre. This album definitely puts this reviewer in the latter camp.
'I Only Know...' boasted a beautiful, raw understated approach to production and that same approach runs like a seam throughout this whole album. It is so distinctive that it almost feels like a concept.
And at times the result is truly, utterly staggering. Forthcoming single 'The Whilhelm Scream' is probably the best example. For the majority of the song's five minutes there is rarely more than a couple of things happening at any one time - a vocal runs throughout but besides that there are a smattering of clicks and beats and some soft electronic melodies, the occasional wave of distortion. But there is a point at around three-minutes in which sees the background (the clicks, whirs and distortion) become the foreground and the foreground (Blake's bruised vocal) become the background. It may sound like hyperbole but stick it on through some decent headphones or a good stereo and it is utterly staggering - worth the cost of the album on its own in fact.
And while James Blake may no longer be constrained by dub step that doesn't mean there aren't elements from that genre here. In fact, the impact of dub step on Blake's song writing and production techniques are writ large across the ambient patterns, ticks and space of all of these songs. It is quite simple: 'The Whilhelm Scream' wouldn't be possible without dub step.
The criticisms are valid insomuch that this is undoubtedly the dub step album for your mum and the auto-tuned vocals innevitably feel a little over used. Everything about Blake's album screams that this is a guy needing to expose his soul but who is afraid to do so - the songs and vocals are deliberately obscured, scuffed and distorted. It is this filter that makes them so interesting yet it is difficult to hear the acapella start to 'Lindisfarne I' without thinking about Imogen Heap and dodgy hip-hop records.
These are minor quibbles though - the 'Lindisfarne I' minimal vocal exists to provide a counterweight to 'Lindisfarne II', where the vocal is set against a jerky folk backing. As Blake sings about people flying too high it almost sounds as though the song has taken its first shaky step out of the nest.
And aside from minimalism it is contrast that this record does best. Take the tale of sibling rivalry that is 'I Never Learnt To Share', which starts with a soulful vocal - "My brother and my sister refuse to talk to me, but I don't blame them" Blake repeats (confusingly he is an only child, leaving the listener to guess at the song's true meaning). By the song's climax there is a heavy bass line and squelchy synth in the front of the mix with the whole thing having seemingly evolved from one extreme to another without you even noticing the joins.
These songs are stripped bare to the point the production would be better dubbed anti-production. The closing few tracks perhaps demonstrate this best - 'Why Don't You Call Me?' jumps around like a distorted memory with the parts all in the wrong place. It puts the idea first and lets it roll around inside your head like the memories you can't possibly leave behind. the more you think about the them the more distorted and oblique they become. Final track 'Measurements' leaves all the tricks at the door, delivering a fairly straight but layered soul number.
More than anything this is just one of those albums you need to have heard and that you need to have an opinion about. Love it or hate it you cannot deny the ambition and because of that we can't wait to see what happens next.