On James Blake’s Deconstructed R&B

02/02/2011 4:00 AM |

Twenty-two-year-old British producer/songwriter James Blake made the equivalent of a quantum leap in gradual steps during 2010, hurtling from barely post-collegiate to barely pre-stardom on the strength of three staggered EPs. Pitchfork, in its infinite year-end wisdom, called his 11 conglomerate tracks the eighth-best long-playing album of the year. Actually, if lumped together, the Bells Sketch, CYMK and Klavierwerke EPs might have been a disjointed mess, stylistic digressions mixing uneasily in adjacency. Gun-jumping hyperbole aside, the keen interest now following Blake’s every release is justified by his breadth of sounds. In the best corners of his 2010 output, Blake produced a strange sort of electronic soul music, capturing and manipulating a voice’s timbre but robbing it of narrative motivation. He’d lift an old track’s ecstatic moan only to chop and loop it, endlessly Xeroxing a wordlessly cathartic emotion, throbbing in place, harmonized against pitch-shifted smears. While achieving a formidable array of weird tones and beats, the work still felt cerebral, like a calculated experiment in disrupting smooth music’s easy flow. Of course, all grumbling over premature coronation is now moot—massively, immediately blunted by the release of James Blake, a debut that pushes its maker’s sound to a new and surprising plateau.

While Blake’s production roots are located in the UK’s echo- and-bass heavy dub-step scene, his debut album blossoms in such a way that it seems like a logical step in the underground’s newfound fascination with deconstructing commercial R&B. Blake used his EPs to subvert that genre’s mechanics, abstracting well-known samples and mangling his own singing in the process. This record’s opening track, “Unluck,”finds Blake ably using his own rich voice. It’s not disguised so much as it’s digitally pixilated—constantly blurring, stalling and shifting a frame or two ahead. But for comparative clarity, it might as well be “Amazing Grace.”The following “Wilhelm’s Scream”is less digitally frayed while lamenting, “I don’t know about my love. I don’t know about my lovin’ anymore,”as the music’s low-key lover-man vibe is slowly eroded by oppressive buzzing. It sounds like a house-music sex jam doped to the gills on barbiturates, losing its will to live. “I Never Learnt to Share” frets repetitively over broken family ties with an intimacy and high theatricality reminiscent of Antony and the Johnsons, although presented in a much starker way.

The insane minimalism of this record is both a stylistic triumph and a numbing agent. Pessimistically, it can be monochromatically pained, seldom up-shifting from a proud crawl. Even the well-chosen Feist cover, “Limit to Your Love,”which seems more interested than other tracks in textural accents and tensions pushed and pulled, is incredibly downcast in a way that makes its British hit status surprising and U.S. airplay improbable. On the other hand, you have to admire the ample negative space that lets “Measurements,”a song saturated by agnostic doubt, turn into a swoony devotional merely by multiplying a treated vocal for a lush collective tone. With bones these bare, you can’t help falling for the fleeting fleshy bits.