James Blake, a freckled, auburn-haired young singer and electronic artist from the southern town of Deptford, England, fell into dubstep-inspired electronics while at university, where he majored in pop music (which apparently one can do). Years of classical piano training already under his belt, Blake, spurred on particularly by Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, decided to add vocals to his wandering, blues-tinged melodic lines, though he chose to submerge much of them in special effects and a quiet, often heartbroken-sounding delivery. The result is his debut album, James Blake, which earned the singer runner-up status in the BBC’s Sound of 2011 contest, got a Best New Music nod from Pitchfork, and hopefully is making it hard for curious music fans to give the new Strokes or Lady Gaga songs too much thought this week.
Listening to James Blake feels like being buried under a down comforter with an ativan in your stomach and another person by your side whom you’re sweating but haven’t quite caught yet and maybe never will. Your ideal track for this predicament: “The Wilhelm Scream,” which was inspired by some production work by Blake’s father, of a track called “Where to Turn” by James Litherland, and which contains the brilliant lines, “I don’t know about my love / I don’t know about my loving anymore / All that I know is / I’m falling, falling, falling, falling / Might as well fall in.” The latter half of these lines (and they repeat and change slightly many times over the course of the song) is appropriately set to vertiginous underwater-sounding electronics.
The songs are sexy, but sexy has a great range, and at the opposite end of the spectrum from James Blake you would probably find Robin Thicke. Blake’s most comfortable range verges on baritone, but he often reaches into alto, where he doesn’t sound uncomfortable, just charmingly wounded. There are flecks of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons in his voice, but Blake’s voice cracks and crumbles, and you feel he doesn’t want to get as close to you as Hegarty does, literally or figuratively. These songs feel like very private experiments that happened to have come out immaculately; Blake’s shy live presence strengthens that argument.
Blake paid homage to Mitchell with a cover of “A Case of You” posted to Stereogum and other blogs this week. Not surprisingly, it’s a wandering, indulgent cover that stumbles out of its time signature in a way that suggests improvisation, and much of the full-length album feels this way. Blake lets out a sigh in the final second of the Mitchell recording, and these little accidents of real life — breaths, children yelling in the street, the sound of taking a foot off a piano pedal — exist throughout, a delightful feature for an album whose electronics feel so perfectly orchestrated, even when they seem to be wandering and bending away — beautifully so — from structures like rhythm and melody.