Monday, May 9, 2016

album review: 'the colour in anything' by james blake

So on Billboard BREAKDOWN earlier this week, when I was covering Beyonce's 'Forward', the collaboration interlude she made with PBR&B and post-dubstep artist James Blake, it was implied by someone that I'd like to see James Blake drop an album sometime in the near future. And while that's definitely true, I started trying to dissect why, because he's not often an artist I seek out, but one I'm happy exists all the same. His brand of moody yet soulful atmospheric electronic R&B can be surprisingly compelling, albeit more for the performance than the content. All of James Blake's biggest strengths shine through in subtlety, and the details, and while I never really loved his self-titled record or his 2013 sophomore release Overgrown, they were both records I found myself revisiting to try and extract more.

So little did I expect that James Blake would seemingly follow up on my suggestion and drop a record with no warning whatsoever! Now as much as I'd like to say I called it and would love to further test my precognitive powers, in reality it's probably just a matter of timing. After all, for the first time in his career James Blake has landed a featuring credit on the Hot 100 thanks to 'Forward' with Beyonce, so why not push that moment of hype further with the long-teased third record The Colour In Anything. But on a similar note, I was concerned that the release might be overshadowed by louder or more famous entries, especially when hours later Radiohead announced they were releasing a new album this Sunday! And that's not considering the album itself, which running over an hour is nearly double the length of previous James Blake albums, and I was a bit concerned how well that sort of atmosphere would translate to a longer project. But enough dancing around the issue: how did I find The Colour In Anything?

Here's the thing: when you have someone like James Blake, unless there is a huge leap forward in songwriting or atmosphere or melody, any differences in quality between his records is going to be fairly small. That said, The Colour In Anything is tricky to evaluate - in terms of individual songs, it easily has some of his best in terms of writing and production, but on the law of averages, it also produced some of his worst. And I can't be the only one who feels that the length of this record doesn't really do it many favours - and yet with that being said, I can't say I didn't enjoy it on some level, the sort of blissed out, misty music that manages to remain compelling enough in production and delivery to keep pulling me through, something which Drake's Views - a record you could definitely argue was trying to cultivate a similar sort of chill yet emotionally-driven atmosphere - couldn't quite pull off.

So let's start with Blake himself - and while there will be moments where he sounds a little like Sam Smith, he's always been a far more emotive and complex performer, capable of stately elegance but also moments that are plaintive and emotive and powerful. There isn't nearly the same stiffness in his liquid delivery, helped by production that gives it plenty of space to really breathe, and while I'd always prefer more harmonies and multi-tracking - he's got a knack for rich vocal harmonies that always feels a little underserved - the one track where he really tilts into that is the closer 'Meet You In The Maze', where most of it is spoiled by gratuitous vocal effects. And while I've accepted this is a part of Blake's production style, I can't say it's always executed as well as it could be on this album and only serves to emphasize the distance that has hurt his intimate and subtle songwriting since his early work. It does come together on the 808s & Heartbreak-eque tones of 'Put That Away And Talk To Me', but I've always thought he's sounded better on intimate pieces like 'f.o.r.e.v.e.r.' or the gorgeous and heartbreaking title track, or even the stately swell of 'Waves Know Shores', but the pitched-up opening of 'My Willing Heart' or the squawking fragments throughout 'Choose Me' or that annoying looped piece on 'Noise Above Our Heads', or the stuttered title word of 'Always' just do not flatter his tones whatsoever.

Much of this is also a factor of the instrumentation and production, and here's the thing: when you have such a straightforward setup - sparse piano or synths, programmed percussion, and a thick cushion of reverb - you have to pay attention to subtleties to note the shifts. But the odd thing is that right from the first track, with the trap hi-hat and much thicker squealing synth, you get the impression this is James Blake's loudest project to date... without quite being the biggest. This might seem like a contradiction, but much of this has to tie into the atmosphere - for as much as the vocals have room to swell and breathe and occasionally some of the midrange percussion or pianos, the sharper trap percussion is nearly always very close to the front of the mix, which places a much sharper boundary on the sound than Blake was able to create on Overgrown. But more than that, with the choice to go for more blaring, klaxon-like synths that warble across the mix, these tracks are thicker but also closer to the ear. And sure, nearly all of it has great texture - take the drums against the subtle swells on 'Timeless' or the glassy melodies on 'Put That Away And Talk To Me' that plays off the whirring percussion surprisingly well, the subtle horns on 'Waves Know Shores', the beautiful misty blur of 'I Need A Forest Fire' featuring Bon Iver playing off James Blake really quite well, the distant clatter of metallic drums against the faded pianos on the first half of 'Modern Soul' - but contrast that with the synths on 'I Hope My Life' that could have been pulled from a Depeche Mode song or the burbling deep house tendencies of 'Noise Above Our Heads' or the stuttering ring on 'Two Man Down' against what sounds like brighter synths or the rattling handclaps against the pitched-up vocals on 'Always', and you can tell James Blake is playing for what now is a more accessible sound. And I hate to say it, but it doesn't really flatter Blake's skillset - many of these tracks aren't rooted in a strong melodic hook and are more abstract, free-floating pieces, and thus can lack momentum when they're going for a more convention sound. And nearly all of them run long - this record is a long seventeen tracks as it is, and thanks to the generally low-key vibe and Blake's ambivalence towards momentum, this record can definitely drag on the back half, especially right after the incredibly powerful title track... he just wasn't going to top that, the record could have easily ended there.

But to explain why that is, we need to talk lyrics and themes. Now I've been critical of Blake in the past - I can respect how well his simple brand of writing can translate to subtle nuance, but there's a peculiar facet to his writing which seems to act directly against the sense of intimacy that he's trying to cultivate. And the best way I can describe it is if James Blake doesn't feel like a primary actor in his own relationship drama - the girls might change, the situation might evolve, but Blake himself seems to remain the same or not take a lot of action, which has a certain consistency but can make me feel a little distant, especially as its his feelings that drive the emotional throughline. Now that doesn't really change on this record - songs like 'Points' are prime examples, as the girl changes and that causes the relationship to fall apart - but what I like is how Blake is more aware of his own inertia. And while there are moments where he tries to break free of it - 'Put That Away And Talk To Me' is the best example as he tries to fight free of a weed-induced stupor, and 'I Need A Forest Fire' shows on some level he craves action to restart things - where this album gets interesting is when he tilts into it. For example, 'Love Me In Whatever Way' shows him getting taken along the path towards affection, along with the warning that he's not going to correct his course easily. Or take the fading scene of 'Radio Silence', where the break-up proceeds in slow motion and while he's in pain, the deadening feel of inevitability creeps through. That's arguably where we run into a bit of an issue with the writing - the tone isn't smug, but for as self-assured as James Blake is, his lack of activity on some of these tracks can hit a detached note that doesn't help him appeal sympathetic. However, by far the best track is the title track, as Blake tries to hold together a relationship with someone that seems to have depression, who can't see the colour in anything, and for as much as he wants to help, for as much as he loves this girl and would love to carry her past her pain, he can't really help her here in the way she needs, and there's real drama in not being able to take action. Easily one of his best ever tracks, I'd recommend this record on its strength alone.

But as a whole... I dunno, I do like this album a fair bit, but I'm still not convinced James Blake has made his atmospheric masterpiece just yet. The songwriting and vocal delivery is improving, but this record could have been tightened significantly with a fair few cuts and the production didn't need to go as broad as it did. I'd argue James Blake is in a weird spot right now - certainly influential and working with superstars who have the budget and clout to push him over the top, but Blake himself isn't really making mainstream accessible music, and I don't know if he ever will. As it is, for me this is a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan, but I'd check out pieces of it over listening to the entire thing as a whole, because it certainly runs longer than it should. That said, Blake's comeback is considerable, and there are great songs here, so definitely take a look.

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