In his 2011 eponymously titled debut album, the English musician James Blake, then 23, rendered his version of A Case Of You, a beautiful song by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell is said to have written the song, from her 1971 album Blue, after her relationship with singer Graham Nash ended. Blake’s version, accompanied by a piano and not much else, may not be quite as moving as Mitchell’s but it’s surprisingly tender.
This is all the more surprising because Blake is known as an electronic musician who has explored many genres—folk rock, though, is not prominent among them.
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Yet that’s the sort of versatility we have come to expect from Blake. In 2019, he won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance for King’s Dead, a song he co-wrote with several artists, including Pulitzer prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock. Blake, who is gifted with a baritone, doesn’t sing much on it but his jittery electronic style is clearly evident.
In fact, Blake has been prolific in his hip hop collaborations. Besides Lamar, he has worked with rappers such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Frank Ocean, and others.
However, you can’t box him into a category. His music is complex and genre-defying. The melodic arrangements on his tracks are often disrupted suddenly by, say, the use of special effects-aided nervous vocals or abrupt changes in beats or harmonies.
Blake’s work can be perplexing and, on occasion, difficult to access. But even that isn’t an apt description.
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Earlier this month, he released his newest and fifth full-length album, Friends That Break Your Heart. Featuring collaborations with singers such as SZA, slowthai and JID, the album could have been a straightforward incursion into hip hop—but it is not.
It is, though, one of Blake’s most accessible albums. His vocals, for the most part, have not been treated with special effects, and some of the songs he croons are so tender and intimate that it is easy to forget he is really an electronic musician with beginnings in electronic dance music (EDM) and dubstep, the electronic music that originated in London and is characterised by minimalism and deep bass.
In songs such as Say What You Will, his rich baritone is in full force against a non-intrusive synth-created soundscape as he sings: I look okay in the magic hour/ In the right light with the right amount of power/ And I’m okay with the life of the sunflower/ And I’m okay with the life of a meteor shower. In another track, Lost Angel Nights, he sounds like he’s singing a delicate hymn.
One hallmark of Blake’s past albums has been an overall tinge of bleakness. His vocals and arrangements could often be melancholic, shaded with sad irony. On his 2019 album, Assume Form, in a love song titled Are You In Love?, he sings: Are you in love?/ Do your best impression for me.
He can be upbeat too—in spurts. On the same album, he collaborates with the American rapper André 3000 for Where’s The Catch?, which begins with André’s bright optimism (We delay the show, we kiss so long/ We breathe through the nose, ’til the breath is gone/ And everything slows/ Everything’s rose now) before Blake comes in with his verse to spoil the show: Where’s the catch? (Can’t fool me)/ Where’s the catch?/ There must be, there must be a catch.
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These are the kind of disruptive mood changes, usually accompanied by abrupt changes in musical arrangements, that make Blake’s music something of an acquired taste. It might be a taste worth acquiring, though.
Blake grew up in a musical household and was trained in classical music. That is perhaps why even though he stepped early on into the field of electronic music, his compositions have features that can often be observed in classical music: two-three sets of melodies; harmonic refrains; and recapitulation. He has infused electronic pop with a melancholic aspect that seems like an influence of some classical music constructs.
His new album, Friends That Break Your Heart, is one of the easiest to relate to. Yes, there are the trademark disruptions—vocals take off in unexpected directions and new melodies supplant older ones on the same track. Yet the songs are more accessible, sometimes because of his collaborators. The track Show Me, for instance, features the singer Monica Martin, who brings in a note of hope and brightness in a song that opens with the lines: I heard you control love/ It’s just not come out for me/ I heard you had a sweet way/ That I have yet to see.
The album has other easily accessible entry points too. One is Blake’s vocals, particularly when these are not auto-tuned or embellished with special effects. In a few songs, such as Say What You Will, his vocals sound uncannily like Matt Berninger of The National. It’s yet another example of his ability to change styles.
Many contemporary musicians try to blur styles in what is almost a sort of post-modern thing to try and stand out in a scene where everything sounds so derivative and similar to music from earlier decades. But few pull it off with the perfectness that Blake appears to. His new album is a testimony to that.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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