‘Blake’ an aesthetic experience

Jeff Powers

With modern music dominated by technology that allows anyone and their cat to make a record, it is amazing that James Blake can find an empty niche to release something unique. On his self-titled debut album, the 21-year-old English producer and composer mashes R&B soul and electronic dance music to generate a sound that seems to transcend genre. If you have never heard of James Blake, it may be because mainstream America is a little behind the Brits in the electronic music scene.

Little by little, the London-based electronic genre known as “dubstep” has leaked into popular music, with support from artists like Rihanna, Ke$ha, Snoop Dogg and Britney Spears. Characterized by its syncopated, irrational rhythms that stress beats that are not normally stressed, the genre breaks the mold of the standard “four-on-the-floor” dance rhythms found in popular techno and disco. Because of its slow and abnormal rhythms, many find it hard to classify dubstep as dance music, since it can be rather difficult to dance to. Instead, it should be appreciated as an abstract art form for its audacious, punk efforts to bring fresh structure to music.

Although Blake comes from the late-dubstep movement, “James Blake” breaks away from the genre, hovering somewhere closer to R&B soul in the 22nd century. The album defies logic, mixing the contrasting elements of ice and warmth, minimalism and abundance, and detachment and love. Seemingly strange at the surface, upon dissection it is filled with basic human emotions, poignant piano, and serenades that could easily appear on a primetime medical drama.

The album’s clicking beats, repetitive lyrics, metallic effects, and unnatural pauses produce a nervous tension. Then, just as you are lulled into an icy trance, Blake’s sultry, soulful voice bursts through to wake and comfort, such as in the transition from the speeding up and slowing down “I Mind” to the doo-wop harmonies in “Measurements.” He frequently hides his expressive voice behind dark, metallic Auto-Tuned vocals, an approach similar to Justin Vernon on “For Emma, So Long Ago” and Thom Yorke on “Kid A.” At heart, Blake is a natural singer-songwriter capable of moving you to tears, but he detaches himself from the listener, allowing him to avoid becoming a sappy piano man.

Comparisons can be drawn to artists like The xx, Ratatat, and Daft Punk, but Blake sounds more like a master than an apprentice. His cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” stands out for its normalcy despite its profound wobble bass and is arguably better than the original. “The Wilhelm Scream” interestingly covers “Where To Turn” by his father, James Litherland, a dream-like love song which Blake suffocates with static. Blake laments “My brother and my sister/ Don’t speak to me/ But I don’t blame them” over and over in “I Never Learnt To Share,” so that his tale of a broken family became more like a meaningless mantra seeping into your brain. “I Mind” is abrupt, shifting, and disconnected like an art house film, but it ironically ends more naturally than any other song.

Uncomfortable and dissonant at first, the awkward beats penetrate your subconscious, and they go unnoticed before long. The long silences, especially evident in the 5-second pauses in the robotic, a capella “Lindesfarne I,” allow the listener to fill in the void. With each listen, you can hear something different. Sometimes it is intense and engaging, but other times it feels odd and tiresome. Many listeners will find it wild while others will find it boring. But in this way, “James Blake” is an active experience, an album that sums to more than its parts.

The album is not to be put on in the background or played through a laptop, and it is difficult to understand with only one listen. But despite its uncomfortable ambience and conceptual structure, you do not need to be a musical expert to appreciate it. You just need patience. “James Blake” sounds best if you lock yourself in your room, play it at full volume and bass through good headphones, and watch the snow fall outside. It may very well be the perfect remedy for the bitter winter.