By Chris Molnar | 13 January 2011
As James Blake has developed his sound into overtly digitalized swaths of his quavering voice, accented by minimalist drums, the dubstepper of yore has turned into something far more interesting and vulnerable than his Aaliyah-sampling past would’ve predicted. Opener “Unluck,” for example, focuses merely on urgent snaps building to an epic, minor key swell of keyboards. “I Never Learnt To Share” follows a similar path, with Blake’s confession—“My brother and sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them”—gradually gaining in intensity, diving into offbeat synths before folding into a series of precisely toned squeals. Like Dylan and folk or Zeppelin and the blues, dubstep, for James Blake, is just a well-tread reference point.
The centerpiece of his self-titled debut is his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” and his Buckley-does-Cohen standardizing of the piece is evidence more than anything that his naked precision and nervous structure requires a healthy backbone of pop. Though his combinations of simple piano chords, novel effects, and structural tension are products of pure pop instinct, James Blake plays out more as the product of an interpreter than a songwriter. The key subtleties of “Limit to Your Love”—the start in media res, the industrial wobble that slips in between rim knocks, the vocal tremolo—are nearly inexhaustible. That they so seamlessly emphasize the best qualities of a song already so airtight makes them kick in a way that similar nuances, on most other songs here, don’t. “There’s a limit to your love / Like a waterfall in slow motion” was already a heart-stopping line. When Blake croons it, accenting the word “slow,” manipulating it to waver in time with the beat, it becomes an aphorism.
After “Limit” cuts the album in two, the blunt force of the first half gives way to more meditative pieces. Without the anchoring lyrical melodrama of, say, “The Wilhelm Scream”—“I don’t know about my dreams / I don’t know about my dreaming anymore”—or the simple, slightly jarring juxtaposition of clean synths and Auto-tune, the borders between songs can get fuzzy, the songs themselves a bit too moody, too weightless. For “Lindesfarne II,” this works—think Bon Iver; think woodsy; think mood piece. Otherwise, “Why Don’t You Call Me” is like an Antony song chopped into silences and ever-shrinking Antonys; it steadily flows into the ominous “I Mind,” whose haunted, pitch-shifted “ooh-wees” communicate both romance and paranoia, Blake’s two main assets.
And while there are down moments to James Blake—“To Care (Like You)” is draggy dubstep, decaffeinated and uninteresting in its simplicity, that is until it lets the monkey slide off its back for a heartbreaking final 50 seconds—the debut is a compelling pay-off after last year’s EPs promised so much. But “Limit to Your Love” is in no way a “Heartbeats,” Jose Gonzalez’s cover of the Knife song, a capturing of two distinct styles tessellating clearly and snugly. Blake hasn’t yet mined the true depths of his open spaces and unnerving rhythmic harmonies—the hope is that the range of abilities he’s just beginning to flex, the ambience he’s just beginning to wield, can combine and level the listener without depending on Feist or a good riff.
Blake’s omnivorous, ever-focusing output over the last year has been one exciting teaser after another, not because of its consistency but because of how Blake seems to constantly challenge himself in unexpected ways. James Blake is practically academic in how it takes apart and reassembles the narrative structure of pop music, and we probably have his grounding in heady electronic music to thank for that. If, at most, this album is a testament to encyclopedic impulse, to mathematical soul, then, well, Blake is so good at so much that it, at its best, can start to resemble the product of intuition anyway. It’s as good and as varied a debut as we could have wanted, even if Blake may never get the chance to escape the looming shadow of hype. It’s a stunning way to start a career.