It was with his debut LP that James Blake‘s inscrutable dub facade started to falter in earnest. That beautiful record showed moments of tenderness unforeseen by those who wiled out to ‘At Birth’ and ‘Anti-War Dub’, and led James to be known as much for his soul than for his knowledge of the lower frequencies. But it was what came after; a collaboration with Justin Vernon, a chilling cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’, and numerous other ballads on the Enough Thunder EP, that set James in his current dichotomy. He’s still a post-dub darling, and will be remembered that way for a long time to come, but right now James Blake is forging his own path to true credibility. You see, whilst your Boiler Room sets can go down in underground history, that kind of electronic music is always going to create a barrier of ephemerality between you and the mainstream, even if the mainstream you’re searching for is still an alternative one. What helps James Blake is that he not only has that legacy, but also possesses a degree in Popular Music, a stunning voice, and a heart.
It’s that combination that has come to fruition on ‘Retrograde’, which is quite possibly his most accomplished work to date. A truly beautiful, open musing on relationships, James sounds tender and strong all at once. Echoey soul hmm’s, sterile handclaps and gentle keys fade into weeping synths that waver in and out of discord, and suddenly you’re hit with a wall of noise that’s overwhelmingly sumptuous, but empty; built on James’ repetitive confession that “We’re alone now.” Soon after reaching its crescendo the wall breaks down again, and leaves James to close off the sublime lament in quiet reflection. Having seemingly abandoned his reliance on voice manipulation, perhaps ‘Retrograde’ does suggest a bit of regression; but the layers James has stripped back have just served to show the brightness of the man underneath. 10/10
Dance Yrself Clean