About 30 seconds into the first track on James Blake’s self-titled debut, you realize that the dude has a pretty impressive pair of pipes. He’s got the kind of croon that can turn words like “of” and “out” into six syllable soul scratchers, and a falsetto that’ll give you goose bumps. But any joker can sing.
What really separates the 22-year-old British artist from traditional singer-songwriter types is his approach.
In 2010, he released two synth heavy E.P.’s (CMYK and Klavierwerke) that were loaded with the blips and twitches typically associated with dubstep, a genre of electronic music that originated in South East London. Those releases found Blake experimenting with chopped-up vocal samples to create busy sounding songs that you could still bob your head to.
While Blake takes a more delicate approach in this album, crafting songs with pianos, acoustic guitars and actual lyrics, he coats it all with a subtle layer of dubstep to create a fresh yet focused sound.
On songs like “Limit to Your Love” – yes, it’s a Feist cover – where a gentle piano is eventually joined by a growling synth bass and computer-generated drum clicks, the harsh contrast between the different sounds adds to the sense of desperation felt throughout the entire album.
And yes, with song titles like “Unluck,” “I Never Learnt to Share,” and “Why Don’t You Call Me,” James Blake is a desperate man.
No where is that fact more apparent than in “The Wilhelm Scream.” Movie buffs and/or communications majors probably know that a Wilhelm scream is that clichéd sound effect used in movies when someone is shot, blown up or falls. The desperation in that scream is what Blake attempts to capture in this song, which starts out with a smooth R&B beat but slowly transitions into a hazy hypnotic fuzz that, by the end of the song, will leave you feeling like he’s inside your head … or that you’re inside of his.
“Lindisfarne I” is an Auto-Tuned a capella reminiscent of the Kanye West-sampled “Woods” by Bon Iver frontman and indie folk god Justin Vernon. But even when his voice isn’t Auto-Tuned, Blake often sounds like Vernon’s vocal doppelganger.
While the album has its radio ready tracks (“Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream”), the majority of them are more like experiments than actual songs. Although Blake often combines the classical with the digital, he does so in a restrained manner that lets him thoroughly develop certain sounds and explore the moods they create.
Lyrical repetition is also an important element in many of his songs, and serves to emphasize the distressed emotional message of the album.
In “I Never Learnt to Share,” he repeats “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/ But I don’t blame them” for almost five minutes – but with vocal layering and a natural instrumental buildup that culminates in an epic finish, he’ll keep your attention the entire time.
The whole album, in fact, seems to have a natural progression to it, especially with songs like “Lindisfarne I” / “Lindisfarne II” and “Why Don’t You Call Me” / “I Mind” specifically arranged to flow right into each other. To truly appreciate the melancholic simplicity of album closer “Measurements,” you have to start with opener “Unluck” and listen to everything in between.
And that’s how you can tell that James Blake doesn’t just want you to listen to his songs. He wants you to experience them.