One of the first things that struck me about this album was that, aside the lead single ‘Limit To Your Love’ which came out October-time, I had not heard any of the songs before. This is even more refreshing when you consider that in the last 12 months James Blake has released 3 EP’s, all of which were very strong. The fact that he resisted the urge to put any of these songs on the album tells us two things: firstly that he’s written a lot of good songs and, secondly, that he’s probably got a lot more to come. I’d be surprised if this was his only offering in 2011.
The album opens with ‘Unluck’, which is a clear continuation of what we’ve heard over the past year. The synths and drum machine make me think of the Klavierwork EP, only left on its own to calm down for a bit. The next song, Wilhelms Scream (also the next single), continues this slow idea at the start, but it soon starts building up to a drop that never quite arrives. The way I see it this is a nice little critique at the stereotypical ‘club banger’ that has plagued the charts over the past couple of years. While it’s not an entirely comfortable song to listen to, you get to the end of it and feel oddly satisfied.
It is soon followed by the pair of Lindesfarne songs, the first of which uses reverb-laden, treated vocals to create a melancholy acapella song that is is asking for a Mount Kimbie or Burial rework. Maybe even something similar to what Devendra Banhart did with Phoenix’s ‘Rome’ (you can listen to that song here). What this first part does though is act as an introduction to one of the strongest songs on the album, Lindesfarne II. There will be many a comparison with Bon Iver here, understandably considering Blake said that For Emma, Forever Ago was one of his big influences while making this album. This is a very strong song that immensely listenable; I can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be one of the first songs you go back to after you get to the end of the album.
At this point it’s worth pointing out that if you listen to the album on your laptop speakers you won’t be able to appreciate it fully. The songs are good because of the amount of attention to detail in the production, and to miss out on this is to effectively ignore half of the album. It is particularly noticeable on the updated version of Limit To Your Love. While the original version of the song lit up the internet, what Blake has done now is almost double the length of the song and turn it into a more complete creation. The bass on it sounds amazing and hints at some of the more obviously dubstep influenced songs that come towards the end of the album. That said it is still very much about the simplicity of the piano and Blake’s soulful vocal cutting through the undercurrent of sub-bass.
The second half of the album contains two absolute gems in ‘Give Me My Month’ and ‘ Why Don’t You Call Me’. The first of these sounds as if it was recorded in a smoky lounge-bar somewhere. The vocal and piano immediately made me think of Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald. Both of these songs are staggeringly soulful and heartfelt and provide some relief to the heavy atmosphere of the rest of the LP. In contrast, ‘To Care (Like You)’ is probably the least commercial song on the album. I haven’t quite made my mind up on it yet: I will either fall for it completely or skip it completely in the future. ‘I Mind’ is another of these songs that sits slightly uncomfortably for me. If this sounds like I don’t enjoy it though, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m enjoying trying to work out what it is about these two songs that makes me feel unsure when listening to them. Finally, Blake finishes with a song that could be one of his interpretations of an old-time southern Gospel song. He has given it the James Blake treatment and it works really well.
Blake has successfully made the transition from the more DJ friendly EP’s to an album that has allowed him to experiment more with soul elements than I was expecting. In a recent interview he said that he had done all of the vocals on the album and he has shown that not only is he a very capable songwriter / composer / producer, but he can also sing. It is not an album that flows; instead it goes through meshing genres and subverting them with apparent ease. For me the only sour note is that the album was leaked online over a month before the release date. It’s a shame when this happens as it takes something away from the point of actually ‘releasing’ a record. Make sure that you listen to the album from start to finish a couple of times before you start to chop it up and choose your favourite songs. The ones that jump out at you first will almost certainly not be the ones you end up listening to most.
Buy it here.
Listen to: Give Me My Month [Stream & download removed by request]
File next to: I don’t know! There are simply too many ideas going on to put a label on it. So I guess you can just go and put it next to his other releases.