This is true of many things. Do you find descriptions of wine or cigars or coffee or beer ridiculous or exasperating? Do you find art museums dull? Do you find obsessive, slave-like fans strange and alienating? If any of these are true, you will probably scratch your head at Blake’s new record, Overgrown.
This is because James Blake is – forgive me – a connoisseur’s pleasure. His music is rich in detail but often lacks what you might call a larger picture, a narrative arc, a story, a punchline. It is textural and bass-heavy and, though melodic, rarely straightforward. It is subtle almost to a fault. Elements emerge, shift, rearrange themselves, and dissolve. Blake’s palette is eclectic, and he borrows from hip-hop, UK garage and dubstep, ’80s pop, and Joni Mitchell (you know what I’m thinking of) with equal authority – part of the fun is recognizing each of the strands Blake brings together and hearing how they somehow actually don’t sound that weird together. For instance, if your reaction to “the RZA rapping over some falsetto and jazz-plus harmonies” is either “… what?” or “That sounds fucking stupid”, then I would recommend skipping Overgrown.
I’m not trying to create a hierarchy here. James Blake fans are not smarter or more aware or more intellectual or hipper than non-James-Blake fans. And surely some of each group will either enjoy or hate a record I am, here, predicting they will either hate or enjoy. It’s not a perfect system. I’m just a guy, here, with a computer. Still though, Blake’s music (Overgrown even more than his self-titled 2011 effort) requires a certain kind of listening.
This is because a huge part of Blake’s ethos is to hold back, to not reward the casual listener. Not in an annoying or arrogant way, of course. But Homegrown is an especially patient record, one that is deeply content with ambiguity and confusion and conflict. Just as a theme or melody emerges, it disappears or turns in on itself. Drum beats may repeat, but they are always heavily syncopated and never static. Blake does little to resolve the album’s tension: harmony vs. melody, rhythmic vs. ambient, electronic vs. acoustic, natural vs. processed.
Instead, he lets conflict motivate his music: the forward motion of “Voyeur” swells through the track, almost erasing itself; “Digital Lion” is an almost-nonsense experiment that recalls and Justin Vernon’s “Fall Creek Boys’ Choir.” Album standout “Life Round Here” relies on tick-tock percussion to propel its fuzzy synthesizers alongside Blake’s aching falsetto. Single “Retrograde” is the simplest song on Overgrown: simple percussion, a wandering melody, swelling synthesizers and some quietly resonant piano chords. It’s over almost before it begins.
James Blake – Dim
James Blake – Retrograde
James Blake – Our Loves Comes Back