Those memories of walking through 2011’s brisk winter listening to James Blake’s self-titled record are near and dear; I can recall Blake’s incredible knack for subtle build and nuance, accompanied by his small, yet supremely soulful voice. The subdued Blake supplied the perfect voice for the incurring isolation of winter.
Two years later we have the follow-up: “Overgrown.” It features 10 tracks that, interestingly enough considering the album’s title, reflect that Blake did not undergo much of a growth spurt since the album’s predecessor. Save a verse from Wu-Tang’s RZA on “Take a Fall For Me” and some production help from the likes of Brian Eno on “Digital Lion” (not as much of a stretch as the previous), Blake has, if anything, merely solidified his style on “Overgrown.”
I am not a sort of backwards music purist who believes the ability of an artist to be in the slightest bit stagnate or definable from record to record is non-negotiable with the listener. Rather, I applaud it just as much as an artist who attempts to take chances. Although Blake retains the exact same texture and musical style on “Overgrown” as he did on his self-titled album, the new album does not seem to fall in the melodious atmosphere.
Blake’s strength as a songwriter really blossomed on the self-titled album. “Limit to Your Love” was a passionate piano ballad that would dissolve into minimalist grime in spurts, while retaining Blake’s soulfulness. The best “Overgrown” gets in this respect is on its lead single, “Retrograde.” The hook entails a hummed croon sliced and diced but still seems lost and lacks the cohesion of “Limit to Your Love.”
In further comparison to “Limit to Your Love,” and to go in the opposite direction, the song “DLM” practices the same piano timbre as the song on his self-titled album. It is far more sporadic, and leaves as swiftly as it sweeps in, but it serves a second of beauty in the record. Unfortunately, I saw only potential of what this song should have became rather than what it was.
There is an overarching integrity for structure in the two Blake records, still. Blake’s skill in transitioning seamlessly from soft to blaring is still on “Overgrown.” Notes of “The Wilhelm Scream” are in the Eno-engineered “Digital Lion” and more prominently on “I Am Sold.” These new songs do not have the same sense of intimacy, and therefore not the same level of allure, as “Wilhelm,” but nonetheless, the songs have a fluttering sound that only builds as seconds pass in the same fashion. Blake listeners will be wrapped up in each song, attempting to pull out all of the underlying voices.
The biggest shift between Blake’s records is his collaboration with RZA. Musically, the song is a break from the same croon-and-loop that defines part of Blake’s style throughout each song. It is also interesting to hear Blake experiment with hip-hop production, even if the beat does observe the same reverberated, wobbly delicacies of most Blake tunes. RZA’s verse of forming and losing love provides a certain personality to Blake’s music that was not exhibited before, and his delivery and content are fitting for the song and for Blake’s style.
Blake’s self-titled album resonates far more than “Overgrown.” “James Blake’s” melodies were purer and meshed perfectly with the music Blake composed, creating songs that were entities in their own right. Although Blake’s new album does not have the same majesty, it does not completely disappoint. There are still things to be discovered in Blake’s space on “Overgrown.”