On his 2011 eponymous debut, James Blake tossed dubstep, blue-eyed soul, and piano balladry into a blender and hit “pulverize,” ending up with a fascinating set of what could only tentatively be called songs. Blake seemed to delight in destroying his own creations, swallowing up perfectly fine slow jams with cascades of white noise and defiling his own pretty-boy falsetto beyond recognition. “James Blake” was thus equal parts compelling and teasing—it felt more like a collection of musical sketches than an album, and it offered more questions than answers as to the young London producer’s talents.
“Overgrown,” Blake’s excellent sophomore outing, makes good on every promise of his debut. The album is both more immediate and more sonically lush; it moves away from the minimal dub of its predecessor into more standard pop territory even as it maintains the experimental sensibility that’s turned so many heads over the past few years. Most impressive, though, is Blake’s growth as a songwriter. His lyrics about love worn down by time and distance mesh with his meticulously skewed and degraded arrangements to create electronic music with a beating human heart.
The most immediately striking aspect of the album’s 10 tracks is that they sound significantly fuller than the deconstructed versions of themselves that populated “James Blake.” They have a clear sense of musical direction, indicating that Blake finally seems sure of where he wants to take the listener. It’s a change that’s likely to bring even more people into the James Blake tent, and for good reason. The first single “Retrograde” opens softly, with sparse piano and Antony Hegarty-like humming. Muted orchestral bass hits and R&B handclaps build tension until Blake releases it with a shout of “suddenly, I’m hit!” At that point, multicolored synths ooze down the walls, pooling into a dense mess of dissonance that buoys Blake’s most impressive vocal performance yet. He repeats this trick on “Voyeur,” perhaps the only genuine club banger Blake has ever produced. After a deceptively subdued half-time introduction, he doubles the pace and starts to add layers—first a rhythmic loop of his own voice, then skittering keyboards, then the same dripping synths from “Retrograde.” It culminates with Blake pulling the floor out from under the whole thing with a minute of gyrating, dark electro-house that’s straight-up sleazy.
This is not to say that Blake’s gone soft with age, though. His experimental proclivities are as apparent as they have ever been, but now they are focused more on structure and effect than on sonic oddity. Opening track “Overgrown” is a five-minute-long crescendo that gradually leaks a string orchestra onto its minimal beats, recalling his debut’s “The Wilhelm Scream” in development but drawing its energy from actual instruments rather than white noise. And though Blake lets his voice stand on its own more than ever before, displaying a previously unheard strength and fullness, he’s still willing and able to contort his vocals into unique shapes. On the gorgeous, piano-centered interlude “DLM,” Blake surrounds his unadulterated voice with pitch-altered versions of it, then finishes it up with what sounds like the ghosts of a gospel choir. And on “To the Last,” he drowns his voice in a bath of distortion, then pulls it out from the depths to expose its full-blooded warmth.
The biggest risk Blake takes on the album is also one of its most satisfying moments. On the much-hyped RZA feature “Take a Fall for Me,” he couches the legendary rapper’s lyrics in a bouncy, ethereal beat that pays homage to Wu-Tang’s ghostly hip-hop and updates it for the laptop age. RZA depicts the angst and desperation of a jilted lover watching his girl marry the wrong man, delivering lines like “don’t throw the dice, who let them throw the rice” with claustrophobic urgency. Fragments of Blake’s voice flit above and beneath RZA’s verse like the character’s guilty conscience.
For all its studio virtuosity, though, the most remarkable thing about “Overgrown” is how affecting it can be. Blake recently revealed that he’s in a long-distance relationship with a woman who lives in Los Angeles, and it’s the stress and uncertainty of this relationship that form the emotional core of the album. The deceptively titled closer “Our Love Comes Back” isn’t about the return of a lover but merely of the memories of her: “When I see the pictures of every life and the day they die / it’s your image burnt into my mind,” he sings. The interaction between his lyrics and his music is just as important—he wonders, “is this darkness or the dawn?” on “Retrograde” just as the restrained beat breaks down into energetic chaos, placing his confusion at the center of a maelstrom of digital noise.
With “Overgrown,” Blake proves himself to be prodigiously talented both as a producer and as a songwriter. More importantly, he also proves that “electronic” doesn’t have to mean “sterile”—if anything, the album’s cavernous electronics and glitchy production ground Blake’s loneliness solidly in the present day.—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.