On "I Am Sold," the second track on James Blake's new album "Overgrown," the British electronic musician quickly introduces the line “and we lay nocturnal, speculate what we feel.” It’s a powerful lyric, conjuring images of isolation with someone whom you may still be learning about (both mentally and emotionally), and seems to take on the entire emotional weight of Blake’s sophomore album as the musician weaves it through the song.
At only 24, Blake has already shown his acute understanding of the weight lyrics can command. Through a series of excellent EPs, singles, and an astonishingly strong debut album, he has frequently used seemingly simple lyrics that can be read into for hours on end. A cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Taste of You,” released on the EP “Enough Thunder,” seemed to solidify Blake’s folk sensibilities, his understanding of lyrics and the capabilities they hold.
On “Overgrown,” Blake again uses the simple, folk-tinted lyrics to develop achingly beautiful feel. Musically however, Blake appears to be at war with himself, trying to balance his various influences while still evolving his sound and making a record that will please his fans. Blake’s first record seemed to blend his influences – singer-songwriter folk, dubstep, and modern R&B – into something that was fresh and occasionally puzzling. It was as if he was a signer-songwriter for the modern age, substituting guitars and autoharps for keyboards and electronics. Though, for the most part, “Overgrown” gives off the same feel, it feels slightly less blended. Songs lean slightly towards one genre or another, still blending together to make Blake’s sound, but the ingredients that make up that final product are easier to detect.
This is not necessarily a misstep. In making more clearly definable songs, Blake shows his command over the various genres that shape him. On the album’s stunning single “Retrograde,” Blake’s voice seems to burst through ever intensifying synthesizers, shouting “suddenly I’m hit” in the style of any great R&B singer. The following track “DLM” simply features Blake, a piano, and a simple bass kick to establish a beat. Manipulated versions of the singer’s voice provide beautiful, ghost-like harmonies as he makes his way through a touching song about a rough patch in a relationship. “Digital Lion” and “Voyeur” delve more into the downtempo, dubstep sounds that so shape Blake’s electronic sensibilities.
The album is not without problems. At under 40 minutes, it’s far too short, and feels as if it ends before properly exploring some of it’s central themes of love, developing relationships, and personal expectations, let alone providing closure on any of them. “Take A Fall For Me” features a poorly executed collaboration with rapper RZA, with the Wu Tang Clan architect dropping lines like “Tight as the grip of the squid” and “Candle light dinners, fish and chips with the vinegar,” only to be saved from total oblivion by Blake’s claustrophobic, pulsing production.
When it shines however, “Overgrown” shows Blake at his absolute best. During the opening track, almost in anticipation of the fierce scrutiny he knows the album will undergo in the wake of his debut, Blake seems to almost beg his audience with “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.” He seems to reject the praise he’s been given, hoping only to make his music with some form of obscurity. As was the case with his debut release however, it is Blake’s talent for abstraction and deflection that make “Overgrown” such an interesting release. Through his command of lyrics, Blake manages to make every song on the record far more universal than those of his contemporaries. The songs may be personal, but they can adapt to the lives of the listener, deflecting their weight away from Blake, and abstracting the emotions behind them. In the end, Blake’s original meaning is less clear than it may initially seem, and so, like he suggests in “I Am Sold,” all we have left to do is speculate.
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