A new single from not-really-that-dub-step-y but makes a good dub-step lifestyle model guy, James Blake, debuted yesterday and has been tastefully humming around the Internet since. “Retrograde” is the first thing we’ve heard from his upcoming record Overgrown, which is out in April, and the most fully realized song of his since his self-titled singer-songwriter-cum-abstract-loverman crooner record made him a big deal. It debuted on BBC radio, and you can hear it below prefaced by a real chummy, real British DJ call-in interaction, and then a dumb, taped hype man interlude. It starts on those first tortured, yet also kind of weirdly self-satisfied seconds of falsetto, which make me flinch a bit. I kind of intuitively want to be over it, but I’m not. It’s an interesting tweak to his sound, really.
So listen below, and then we’ll discuss:
I got fairly into James Blake, for a minute, even though its deadly earnest crooning and copious empty space is not so far from other stuff like the xx or Bon Iver that I’m actively bored by. The point of interest was the way Blake treated his vocals, warping them into an uncanny valley of not-quite human wobbling, and then just leaving that pile up unadorned, as if that was enough to be a song. Most of the time it totally was enough to make a song! This is/was a neat trick! “Retrograde” threatens to be that empty at its start, and there was momentary fear that the little eyes closed, wordless falsetto might be all there was to this. Which would have been annoying, maybe? But no! It’s just the foundation, and as a snaky melody to build on it’s not so bad at all.
Once he starts going for real, it’s clear how much of the vocoder blare he’s cleared off of his voice. I am not one to get caught up in some false, less effects = emotional honesty equation, but it can’t help but add warmth. But it’s warm in a way that feels fragile, like the cold outside is seeping through the window pane and you’re beginning to get cabin fever. Maybe that’s just too perfect a match for our current weather situation that it’s a total sucker punch, or I’m projecting? But whatever, it hit me.
What’s best about it, I think, is that big, humming synth drone that rushes up in the middle of the song after he says “Suddenly I’m hit.” It fills the painfully empty space his songs sometimes leave with a vibrating fullness. He’s often had a knack for despondent mantras. “And your friends are gone, and your friends won’t come,” is a good and lonely one. But instead of emulating a crippling isolation with awkward near silence, the synth sound gives it a woozy, disoriented quality, like a rising panic attack.
Anyway, I like it. It sounds cool. Thoughts?