James Blake – Overgrown (Atlas)
The difficulty of the second album is legendary – but with Overgrown, the follow up to 2011’s eponymous debut, James Blake has avoided the pitfalls and produced an album which builds on the strengths of it’s predecessor without playing too safe. Simon Tucker listens for Louder Than War.
Stick or twist? Play safe or take a gamble?
This is the conundrum many musicians face when they decide to create a follow up to an album that had such a distinct sound and feel, and one that is critically and publicly lauded. Blake’s debut album touched a nerve for so many people that it would be easy to just rehash the same formula and watch the monies roll in. Instead, James Blake has decided to use the basics of the first album as a platform to launch his music into different and richer territories.
Opener ‘Overgrown’ starts the album of in a very similar vein to that of his debut but the sound is much richer and fuller than that album. Much more percussion underlies proceedings and when the song burst into glorious life with a burst of strings, the song morphs into a warm, electronic relative of Jeff Buckley’s Everybody Here Wants You.
Follower ‘I Am Sold’ continues in the vein of Overgrown, only this time there are even more layers underneath given an uneasy sense of changing tempos and feel. The rapid hi-hat sample that builds and fades, and the deep-in-the-mix vocal scratch samples, give ‘I Am Sold’ more of a trip-hop feel than minimal piano ballad, again proving that Blake is serious about pushing his music and production skills further on this album.
‘Like Round Here’ ups the ante on the hip-hop tempos front and contains one of the finest lyrical phrases put to music in a long time (more of which later), and you find yourself feeling that Overgrown could really be used to great effect on a hip-hop album.
Which brings us to….
‘Take A Fall For Me’ features Wu-Tang’s RZA to outstanding effect. Opening with record hiss and multi layered vocal, RZA drops in with one of his finest lyrical verses. Speaking of “a million quid”, “chips and vinegar”, and “cold stout”, RZA speaks using such classic British slang that it could easily be deemed cheesy but instead, the verses seem so heartfelt and pure that they really work. Sounding more like the recent JJ Doom album, crossed with an updated version of Aim’s Cold Water Music, ‘Take A Fall For Me’ is where Overgrown truly bursts into life.
The first single from the album, ‘Retrograde’ is up next. All gospel claps, and multi-scale singing, Retrograde builds and builds until exploding into a glorious celebration of heartache. An excellent choice as a lead single and a track that easily holds its own against the previous highs of ‘Take A Fall For Me’.
All of this inevitably makes the next track ‘DLM’ feel a bit weaker to what’s gone before as it’s a return to the minimalism of Blake’s debut, and although there are some beautiful jazz flourishes on the piano, ‘DLM’ just feels like a track thrown in to create some breathing space after what has been and what is to come next.
Well what comes next is ‘Digital Lion’ the highly anticipated collaboration with the king of ambient himself Brian Eno. Considering both Blake’s and Eno’ obvious love of space and silences in music, and also of the more subtle style of electronica, Digital Lion is a beast of a single.
Opening with some minimal dubstep rhythms and multi-tracked vocals announcing the song title, it’s after the brief silence that the track explodes into some dark electronica. Repeated snare rolls speed up and then slow down, gorgeous Spanish-like guitar flourishes by Rob McAndrew gently fade in and out, and more and more obscure and twisted sounds get introduced until it seems the only thing the song can do is collapse in on itself. More dubstep than anything on his debut, ‘Dandelion Radio’ is a deceptively complex and dark track than rewards repeated listens.
You get the feeling that the record had peaked a bit too early when ‘Voyeur’ returns us to the minimal piano led feel of earlier tracks by Blake (even using the one-phrase-repeated stylings used on a lot of his debut), but you would severely mistaken. The track slowly introduces a four-four tempo and cowbell transforming it into a Hot Chip style House number. The last minute or so is a pure dancefloor smasher. This is such a radical departure from what has one before it that ‘Voyeur’ is destined to be one of the most talked about tracks on the album and rightly so. Anyone who’s seen recent live airings of this track will attest to its power to make one want to dance.
The last two tracks on the album, ‘To The Last’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’ bring us back down into more familiar James Blake territory. Both tracks have a nice soundtrack feel to them and are perfectly placed to bring the listener back down, ready to go again.
Overgrown is a great step forward for James Blake. It pitches itself perfectly so that it would not turn away fans who loved the first album, whilst taking us and himself further with his music. Blake still has an amazing gift with phrases that stick in the mind (who can forget the great “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me, and I don’t blame them” from the debut?), and this record is scattered with pearls such as “speculate what we feel”, “he can’t marry her yet”, “our love comes back in the middle of the night”, and one of the most evocative phrases I’ve heard in a long time, “everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day”.
This is soul music of the highest order, a record destined to fit into that great realm of electronica heartache albums like Dummy or Protection and one that many an upset teen will listen to trying to recover from a broken heart and party-goers everywhere looking for something to help with the day-after-the-night-before.
Mature, confident, and imaginative, this is a truly great sophomore effort.