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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Electronic Sound JULY 2013 - by Sam Smith

JAMES BLAKE: OVERGROWN

The widely praised singer-songwriter takes his inventive and emotional electronica to fresh heights

Emotions are imperative for James Blake. On his self-titled debut album, he offered much more than just a glimpse inside the mind of the young producer. In a genre where lyrics barely stretch beyond the odd phrase or two repeated again and again, Blake opened up over his minimal piano and bass driven tracks, sharing thoughts and fears with his audience.

From a lyrical standpoint, it seemed Blake could only go two ways when it came to following up his incredibly introspective debut. He could either bare his soul further, letting the world hear exactly what's going on in his head, or hide it all, burying everything under metaphors. With Overgrown, he has chosen the latter.

The result is a less personal album than James Blake, focusing more on the wider world that on one twenty-four-year-old chap from London. With Life Round Here, you hear synths wailing like police sirens in the background while Blake sings about "part-time love". The first single from the album, Retrograde, focuses on a single person but it's not about Blake himself, it's about someone he tells to ignore the world. The emotions are still there, but they're outward reaching this time around, looking out to the world instead of whispering to himself.

It's lucky, then, that Blake's vocals command much more attention than they did on his previous work. Where he used to mumble, he has found the confidence to use his voice more, calling out strongly in To The Last, letting out aching moans that send shivers down your spine. I Am Sold is redolent of the James Blake closer, Measurements, in the way he builds the song up around his voice by layering altered, distorted versions of it over and over. It's super brave and almost chilling at points.

Musically, Overgrown is quite reserved compared to James Blake and the two EPs, Enough Thunder and Love What Happened Here, he's released between the two albums. It's impressive, as although Blake's music wasn't too elaborate to begin with, these songs are much simpler than anything he's done before. That's not to say Overgrown is boring. Not in the least. Take the climax of Retrograde, for example. The swelling, diving tones are flat individually, but by binding them together, Blake constructs a dense wall of noise, carried by his continued calls underneath. He's great at taking what could be plain and producing it well enough to make it interesting while still keeping it sounding unadorned.

The most technically involved track here is Digital Lion, which is co-produced with Brian Eno. It's unfortunate though, as this complexity feels out of place on Overgrown. There's too much going on. The glitchy vocal sampling, buzzing bass, oscillating clicks, more vocal sampling, acoustic guitar chords and Blake's lyrics don't blend well together. Digital Lion isn't in your face, but it's unsettlingly loud on a relatively quiet album. Take A Fall For Me, the other collaborative track, also comes out of left-field somewhat, with guest rapping by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. You can tell Blake must have jumped at the chance to work with the hip hop legend, but he might not have thought it through well enough. The sticky, slow beat, fuelled by a repeating piano line, keeps RZA's flow slightly stilted and it's obvious he'd have been much more comfortable with a higher BPM.

The final track , Our Love Comes Back, is where Blake finally lets his guard down and brings us in to his life again. His talented piano work compliments the sweet serenade, with bass drum thuds bleeding over. His knack for experimenting with chopping up hums is highlighted here, showing off his soul influences too. It's an incredibly modern love song and a fantastic way to close the album.

James Blake is still growing as an artist, still refining his craft. Although he's doing it in the spotlight, he's definitely doing it for himself. From the emotions expressed, even when hidden beneath the static, you can tell he would still be doing this in his bedroom, even if we all weren't all listening.


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