James Blake has reached the point where he’s transcended genre definition, which is no mean feat. Arguably one of the most influential figures in the electronic music scene recently, his first self-titled album reached critical acclaim, gaining a stunningly broad audience despite not being overtly accessible to most ears. Now is the time for the challenging ‘follow up album’. Undoubtedly one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2013, ‘Overgrown’ has a lot to live up to.
James Blake’s big label singer-songwriter releases have always had quite a different feel to his indie label EPs, and ‘Overgrown’ has an interesting blend of these facets. It’s difficult to ignore the hype surrounding Blake, with an impressively broad spectrum of artists he has collaborated with in the past couple of years (including the likes of Brian Eno and RZA of Wu Tang Clan fame making an appearance on Overgrown). It could be said that this has a lot to do with Blake’s genuine musicianship, which sets him apart from many other producers, not least because his flair and willing to push the limits of song writing is something genuinely unique.
It’s clear from listening to Overgrown that the general consensus that Blake’s songwriting has improved no end holds true. Gone are the lyrics that felt almost like words to fill a melodic gap, and instead of some really well considered songs which are heaped with emotion, something so often void in electronic music. There’s a lot of R&B influences throughout; Blake often refers to hip hop artists as a major influence, so no surprises there. This sits nicely with the signature soul chords that define the sound of the whole album, and certainly in comparison to his debut, ‘Overgrown’ is a much better resolved overall listen.
Once in full swing there are some really tasty sounds on offer; ‘Life Round Here’ really stood out as a heavily R&B tinged track, and is probably the catchiest track on the album and almost certainly set up to be released as a single. A few moments in the album actually reminded me of church choral music; stay with me here! The way Blake brings real light and dark into his writing is extremely reminiscent of choral arrangements, with layered vocals and rich chord sequences, a testament to his refreshingly broad listening tastes.
Those 140bpm tempos are still there for the most part; don’t forget that James Blake is a product of the London dubstep scene late last decade, a good reminder that a genre that has become dirty word has actually yielded some of the most talented British producers in years. What could be considered a slight negative to some, and a real deal breaker to others, is the slightly whiney vocals at times, particularly in tracks such as ‘Dlm’ and ‘Our Love Comes Back’, so take from that what you will.
Largely, though, this is an extremely well polished album which genuinely brings yet more new and challenging listening not just to electronic genres but to popular song writing in general. You don’t get the attention of the likes of Brian Eno without having some sort of talent behind you. Some genuinely refined song writing and broad influences show James Blake is willing to continue moving his game on, and I think that’s the essence of why this album works so well; it’s not just more of the same, that would certainly have been easier, but a well considered, if quite risky in places, statement of confidence from a still maturing producer.
Some of the ideas don’t always quite work; I’ve never been a huge fan of the more ballady productions Blake has released over time, but they do serve a purpose over the course of the ten tracks. Largely, though, this is easily one of the biggest releases of 2013, and deserves your attention, not least because it’s an encouragement that pioneering music like this has the capability to do reasonably well in the mainstream charts. Whether that matters or not any more is contentious, but impossible to ignore.
HBF Rating: 4/5
Written by Sam Lucas
James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’ is out April 9 via Polydor.