Historically, the eponymous LP has served one of two purposes. Either it is an effort to re-invent an overly familiar band to the music-buying public (think The Beatles, Metallica, Blur), or it is an attempt to introduce an audacious new musical brand (think Ramones, The Smiths, Vampire Weekend). After a year in which he released three spectacular EPs and was dubbed the next-big-thing in electronic music, one might assume that James Blake, the debut full-length by the 21-year-old Brit of same name, would fall safely into the latter category. It turns out, however, that Blake intends something entirely different in attaching his own name to this record: he is presenting the listener with a musical self-portrait, with all of his loneliness and heartache on full display.
Unlike 2010’s “CMYK,” an EP that came roaring out of the gate with a dancefloor-ready title track that sampled Aaliyah and Kelis, James Blake opens with a pair of songs remarkable for their quiet, stark isolation. “Unluck” and “Wilhelm’s Scream” are decidedly minimalist tracks in which the remarkably soulful Blake makes frequent reference to broken dreams, ambivalent love, and the album’s central theme, falling.
James Blake – Wilhelm’s Scream
At this point, one might expect Blake to take a step back, but he is clearly making a very personal statement with this record, and the nuances of traditional sequencing do not seem to interest him. The album’s third track “I Never Learnt to Share,” is emotional nudity at its most R-rated: over a background of shifting moods and textures, Blake repeatedly intones, “My brother and my sister/They don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them.”
James Blake – “I Never Learnt to Share”
The music that follows is undeniably gorgeous. With gentle beats, wistful strains of piano and acoustic guitar, and a voice that splits the difference between D’Angelo and Bon Iver, Blake reveals a lonely soul in all its glory. By the time the album reaches lead single and centerpiece “Limit to Your Love,” a tear or two will be flowing from the eyes of the listener, perhaps representative of the “waterfall in slow motion” the song repeatedly references:
James Blake – “Limit to Your Love”
The back half of the record takes on a slightly more hopeful, or at least more accepting tone, with the heart-rending piano ballads “Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me.” Once album closer “Measurements” arrives, the act of falling Blake so often cites no longer feels desperate and frightened; it has transformed into something weightless and triumphant.
James Blake – “Measurements”
It is a cringe-worthy banality in music criticism, but it hold true in this case: James Blake demands repeated listens. On first spin, those expecting Blake to grab the year by the horns the way Animal Collective did with early 2009 release Merriweather Post Pavilion or Vampire Weekend did last year with Contra will be perplexed and slightly disappointed. But those who come back to the record will soon recognize what Blake has accomplished here: he has created a sort of dubstep Nebraska or Sea Change, a record filled with self-revelation, introspection, and naked humanity. And, most importantly, he has made a record overflowing with beautiful, inspiring music.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He lives in Brooklyn and enjoys quiet walks through the snow. He is one sensitive bastard.