When James Blake released his self-titled debut album in 2011, critics and fans alike hailed it as a triumphant progression of music in the evolving electronic landscape, a fusion of post-dubstep and neo-soul. The album saw a young producer experimenting with beats and vocals that emphasized the softness of sound to make quiet burst with emotion.
On his second full-length, Overgrown, Blake has exceeded expectations. Where the first was a collection of tracks that showcased the Londoner’s enormous talents in production, singing, and songwriting, this sophomore effort has married the three to form a story crafted by a musician at his best.
Time-shifted beats and subterranean bass chords are enveloped by hazy synths, wrapped around a tale of discovery and loss that’s showcased in standouts Retrograde (“Suddenly I’m hit!”) and I Am Sold (“And we lay nocturnal / Speculate what we feel”). Tracks build slowly only to crumble around reverbed vocals that sparkle with intelligent uncertainty. “Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day”, he admits with simultaneous trepidation and relief in Life Around Here, before later lamenting in To The Last, “And I’m gonna love you / Tell me if we’re wrong / All I’ve seen is what you’ve done.” The lyrics within are simple and pop-friendly, yet pensive and self-aware, like the sounds that surround them.
Blake’s adventurous streak is not lost on Overgrown, as he collaborates with RZA on Take A Fall For Me and with Brian Eno on Digital Lion. The latter seems both a cheeky nod to the track’s regal title and to the LFO-laden lead single of his initial LP, while the former demonstrates just how well his music works within the context of other genres. RZA’s presence may seem a bit out of place on the album, but the pairing serves to show that there’s still a side of Blake we’ve yet to see.
With two near-perfect full-lengths to his name, perhaps it wouldn’t be appropriate to call James Blake Overgrown so soon; his sound has matured beautifully, but it doesn’t seem that trend is ready to end. Blake hints at continued growth in the title track: “I don’t wanna be a star / But a stone on the shore.” Music like this is not meant to burn bright and fizzle out–instead it will remain, understated and timeless, to the last.