James Blake delivers focused expansion on second LP

Jordan Beck

“I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.”

Taken by itself, it’s a nice enough sentiment. But there’s more to it than that — it’s practically the unofficial mission statement of “Overgrown,” British electronic producer James Blake’s second album.

The first, a downtempo, self-titled set released in 2011, attracted praise from critics on both sides of the Atlantic and showed up on a number of best-of lists at the end of the year. As the above lyric implies, “Overgrown” feels like an attempt to refine that album’s sound while retaining the qualities that made it special.

It’s fitting, then, that the biggest difference between the two albums is simply that  “Overgrown” is more focused. While “James Blake” had a tendency to drift along, this album feels slightly more driving and rhythmic. As a result, many of the tracks here feel more like proper songs than the gorgeous sonic experiments of Blake’s first album.

There are even a few moments where the album veers toward actual pop music, chief among these being lead single “Retrograde.”

Things start unassumingly enough, with Blake singing softly against a minimalistic backdrop of piano, handclaps and his own sampled humming.

When the chorus finally hits after almost two minutes of buildup, Blake’s vocals shift into overdrive and the song explodes into a cloud of buzzsaw synthesizers. On an album primarily focused on quiet beauty, “Retrograde” provides a rare visceral thrill.

Another standout track, “Take a Fall For Me,” manages to blend the moody sound central to “Overgrown” with an inspired bit of stunt casting. While the minor-key piano motifs and sampled percussion which drive the track are pure Blake, he doesn’t provide most of the song’s vocals.

Instead, they’re provided by Wu-Tang Clan member RZA. It may sound absurd on paper, but the track is so well-executed that it ends up seeming like the most natural collaboration imaginable.

If “Overgrown” has one major misstep, it’s “DLM,” a two-minute-long piano ballad near the middle of the LP. Including a short piano ballad in an otherwise electronic album isn’t a problem in and of itself: “Give Me My Month,” a track from “James Blake,” fit that description perfectly and turned out to be a nice interlude.

The problem is that “DLM” sounds a bit too much like a rewrite of “Give Me My Month” for its own good, as both are extremely similar in terms of melody and production.

Still, if the worst thing that can be said about an album is that one track sounds like another track by the same artist, there’s probably not much else that’s worth complaining about.

And there’s not: “Overgrown” is one of the best albums of the year so far; a sleek, subtle record that serves as both an extension of and a departure from its creator’s signature sound. Blake may still be an up-and-comer on the electronic music scene, but if this album is any indication, he’ll be around for a long time.