In a well-publicized late 2011 interview, James Blake drew his line in the sand on the Great Dubstep Debates. The boy who fell for the emotional resonance of bone-disintegrating sub-bass only after years of playing piano privately came out against the American version of guys like Skrillex (whom he couldn’t even be bothered naming). Such performers, Blake contended, appealed strictly to a “testosterone-driven, frat-boy market” that couldn’t be more different from the Feist-and-Joni covers and Bon Iver duets pouring out of the Londoner who’d just turned 23. Blake argued that his music was not only more egalitarian– appealing to women and men equally– but was also a purer representation of dubstep as an idea. It was a misrepresentation of American dubstep’s audiences and a presumptuous statement about What Women Want, sure, but at the same time, it was hard to fault Blake for forcefully trying to stake his claim to a patch of land within a genre broad enough to incorporate a rave resurgence and a brooding folkie.
Overgrown is a showier album than Blake’s eponymous 2011 debut, incorporating more gospel and R&B elements and a wider variety of textures. In a way, it feels like Blake’s meeting himself midway between his LP and EP personas. The string of EPs he released before putting his blurred face and name on the cover of an LP cast Blake as the latest UK producer prodigy, capable of modern classical pieces and tracks built around Aaliyah and Kelis samples. On his first LP, however, Blake opted for the singer-songwriter move, making heart music instead of head music, alienating certain purists while gaining new fans who have zero interest in his work on the Hemlock label.
On Blake’s own admittedly modest terms, Overgrown is marked by extremes. The album starts in the mode of the 2011 LP on which he rued childhood relationships and pondered his dreams. On the title track, he mewls “I don’t want to be a star/ But a stone on the shore,” confessing he prefers to blend into his surroundings rather than draw attention to himself. For a guy who puts a crisp, pensive photo of himself on his album cover, it’s a questionable stance, and his delivery is self-serious enough to nearly tip over into self-parody. It pales in comparison to James Blake opener “Unluck”, though it’s saved from schmaltz through Blake’s skill at investing even the cheesiest sentiments with a palpable anxiety.
There’s showy, and then there’s “Take a Fall for Me”, a collaboration with RZA, who Blake gives free rein to smear awkward romantic imagery all over his track. It’s easy to understand why the pair would collaborate: their production styles aren’t dissimilar, both showing a fondness for gloomy, bass-heavy soundscapes rooted in R&B. Why RZA was asked to rap, however, is hard to understand. If you want to hear the phrase “tight as the grip of a squid” on a James Blake album, or an American’s stereotype of a proper British meal (fish & chips, Guinness), you’re in luck. For the rest of us, “Fall” is Blake’s first out-and-out failure, the sort of song that should have been relegated at the very least to bonus track status, and probably should have been kept private altogether.
Overgrown is not as wall-to-wall great as his debut, but fans of the first LP will still find much to admire. The most promising development is his indulged fondness for various permutations of R&B and gospel styles, best evidenced on the album’s great first single “Retrograde.” Self-described as a song about falling in love, it balances the solemn soul of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” with periodic bursts of passion, via Blake shouting “suddenly, I’m hit!” Throughout the album, he successfully splits the difference between the sultry bedroom vibes of R&B’s resurgent Quiet Storm moment and the more mundane life of a British “bedroom” artist fond of keeping to himself. “To the Last”, in particular, tiptoes around a Sade-style smooth-soul composition, aided by the synthesized sounds of waves crashing ashore.
Blake’s deconstructive take on R&B is similar in spirit to that of How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell. In a recent interview with Pitchfork TV, Krell explained his writing process as one of locating bodily sensations that haven’t yet shaped themselves into recognizable emotions. Suddenly you’re hit, in other words, but you don’t yet know if that feeling is joy, anxiety, frustration, or terror– you’re only aware that something’s there, and you try to freeze it, to examine it more closely, instead of simply slotting it in a category and moving on. This is exactly what Blake does so well (and, for what it’s worth, RZA doesn’t): locating these sensations, and conversing about them. On “I Am Sold”, he even manages to explain the process, by mulling a single phrase over and over, tweaking it, and approaching it from different directions: “speculate what we feel.” Instead of worrying about where he fits in a broader musical landscape, or whether he’s a “star” or not,” this is Blake’s comfort zone. Whether he’s making bass-heavy bangers, quiet meditations, or increasingly of late, something in-between, Blake is a modern master of emotional speculation. –Pitchfork