Just over six years ago, an unassuming yet undeniably gifted 22 year-old bloke formally embarked upon a musical career that now, half a dozen years later, seems to have been predestined for greatness. London-bred producer-singer-songwriter James Blake delivered a trio of experimental EPs in 2010 that most pundits classified as electro-soul and/or post-dubstep, though they each defied such easy categorization. While The Bells Sketch and CMYK are kaleidoscopic, propulsive groove suites, Klavierwerke consists of more minimalist, piano-laden arrangements that augured Blake’s more expansive efforts to come.
In February 2011, Blake released his self-titled debut full-length album to widespread critical acclaim, garnering a nomination for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize, an honor that recognizes the greatest British artist album annually. Relative to the extended plays that preceded it, Blake’s first long player is comprised of noticeably more accessible, emotive, and sparse compositions that nevertheless retain their creator’s penchant for sonic adventurism and melancholic melodies. Indeed, the album marked the beginning of his evolution as an artist and refusal to confine his music within narrow boundaries.
“It’s immensely flattering when people are influenced by you,” Blake explained to The Guardian. “When I first started copying dubstep rhythms but using gospel-tinged, classically tinged keyboard playing, that was the thing that separated me, but now it’s something that other people do, too. The whole night-time torch-song concept is now basically a pastiche. I had to move on from whatever gimmick made me different and just write better songs.” In addition to writing better songs, Blake’s falsetto vocals—in both their unembellished and manipulated, effects-laden forms—are projected to the forefront like they had never been before here. Beyond the standout tracks “The Wilhelm Scream,” “I Never Learnt to Share,” and “Unluck,” Blake adeptly covers Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” the latter appearing on the album’s deluxe version.
Blake’s imaginative sophomore album Overgrown arrived in the early spring of 2013 and ultimately won the coveted Mercury Prize, beating out stiff competition from the likes of Arctic Monkeys’ AM, David Bowie’s The Next Day, and Disclosure’s debut Settle. Overall, and as best evidenced by the excellent “Retrograde,” “I Am Sold,” and title track, the album is a more mature, cohesive, and soulful effort than its precursor.
With the surprise release of Blake’s third LP The Colour in Anything last night, millions of Blake’s fans are floating on cloud nine and covered with goosebumps today, as they discover that the anticipation and hype that have been building for months were well warranted. Indeed, The Colour in Anything represents Blake’s boldest statement and most fully realized album thus far, amounting to his career apex to date. Not to mention that it’s the best damn record we’ve played in the Albumism office all year. “It’s bigger in scope and a byproduct of a lot of change and growing up, really, a lot of self-improvement and reflection,” Blake recently confided to Pitchfork. “My relationship was a catalyst for those kinds of changes; the person I’ve been with for the past year or so really brilliantly held up a mirror to me.”
Co-produced with the legendary soundsmith Rick Rubin and featuring collaborations with Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (but not Kanye West, as previously speculated), The Colour in Anything is a breathtaking record to behold. Devoid of anything even remotely resembling filler material, the album features 17 tracks propelled by unpredictable sonic structures replete with exquisitely executed flourishes and tempo changes that never fail to surprise and delight.
Highlights abound across the entirety of the album, but a handful of songs represent some of the strongest and most introspective compositions Blake has crafted to date. The haunting album opener “Radio Silence” finds him examining his disenchantment about a taciturn, dismissive lover with the repeated refrain “I can't believe this, you don't wanna see me.” It’s a somber, downtempo affair until, at the 1:35 mark, the track picks up stream and morphs into a soaring, pulsating lament that seems to mirror the various stages of despair.
On the plaintive “Love Me in Whatever Way,” a fragile Blake vows to follow his lover “where you lead me,” as his yearning, vulnerable voice strains from the palpable weight of emotion. The powerful, stripped-down piano ballad “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” packs an eye-watering wallop in the same vein as his buddy Frank’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” and Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”
Speaking of Mr. Ocean, he co-wrote “My Willing Heart,” a poignant ode to that moment when you recognize that you are emotionally and spiritually ready to invest your life and love in another. And although this is his lone contribution that appears within the album credits, Ocean’s songwriting influence permeates throughout, with Blake recently admitting to Pitchfork that he “was a huge inspiration for this record. His process, the way he writes, the strength of what he does, who he is.”
Other sublime fare includes the dark, dense drum patterns of “Timeless” reminiscent of Kosheen’s modest 2000 hit “Hide U,” Blake and Vernon’s heavenly harmonies on “I Need a Forest Fire,” the hypnotic “Noise Above Our Heads” which examines the complexities of coexistence and codependency, and the eloquently penned breakup song “Modern Soul.”
In the album closer “Meet You in the Maze,” the second of two songs co-written by Vernon, Blake repeats the mantra “music can’t be everything,” suggesting that love takes precedence above all. We concur. But we’re also convinced that the inspired, modern-day masterpiece The Colour in Anything is essential, life-affirming music that, upon playing it a few times through, we know we can’t live without. Not that we need any further reminding, but Blake’s latest achievement reinforces just how unique and vital of a creative force he is. Album of the year, until otherwise notified.
Notable Tracks: “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” | “Love Me in Whatever Way” | “Modern Soul” | “My Willing Heart” | “Radio Silence”