Release Date: May 5, 2016
Record label: Polydor
Hyperbolizing is a big no-no in professional music criticism, but fuck it: at the risk of pissing off the good folks at DiS, I must say – James Blake is the man. When you listen to his records, the experience is enough to temporarily set fire to all the Top 40 radio stations on the Western Hemisphere repeatedly playing the same dreadful output of whatever manufactured teenage icon is the current flavour of the month. Blake’s velvety, smooth vocals have singlehandedly brought the word 'swoon' back into contemporary linguistics, and men are equally entranced.
The idea of romantic love and the question of its existence have always been present in the music of James Blake. It's an emotion that he explored in depth both with 2013's Overgrown and on his self-titled debut, which featured popular reinterpretations of work from Joni Mitchell, Feist and his own father, but at no other point has Blake unpacked and deconstructed the myriad feelings and facets behind love as deeply as he does on The Colour in Anything, his incredibly expansive third record. Blake's music and lyrics here speak to a deteriorating romantic relationship, which can also be gleaned from the illustrated cover, which depicts a woman ensnared amongst the gnarled branches of a tree.
Throughout James Blake’s career, a duality has been at play in his music and his public persona. There are few other musicians in the world that can successfully straddle genres like Blake can. Equally adept at captivating an eager audience on the dance floor or providing a comforting, consoling, melancholy piano lament for the broken hearted, Blake is part electronic auteur and traditional balladeer.
Keyboards and piano are the most popular instruments for kids who want to learn how to play music. According to a 2014 study, a whopping 58% of students who seek lessons do so for keys and piano. Now think of all the kids who quit, all the kids who don’t practice, all the kids who see a lack of sound when they stare at black and white keys shaped like spilled Jenga blocks.
It would be unfair to characterise James Blake solely as a melancholic musician. The Enfield artist has proven himself as one of the UK's most forthright thinking producers and songwriters of the past decade with his two full lengths and various side projects such as 1-800 Dinosaur. The 'surprise' third release The Colour In Anything rarely wanders away from convention instead enhancing every aspect James has mastered in his career thus far.
It’s not James Blake’s fault that The Colour in Anything came out in the middle of a rainy week. Or it might be; the circumstances seem almost planned. Maybe the team plotting the surprise release of this album was watching storm fronts, waiting for ideal new-James-Blake-album conditions. On first impressions alone, they succeeded wildly: When bed sheets are in disarray, when grey light seeps into wet windows, and the sky is an interminable reminder that there is always a chance of showers, his particular brand of impressionistic melancholy is hard to resist.
James Blake isn’t the first artist of 2016 to make an album that clocks in at nearly an hour-and-a-half in length (The 1975’s ridiculously titled second album sticks around for just as long), but his is likely to be the most heartbreaking of those long-players. From the droning, melancholy synths of Radio Silence through to the vocoder-heavy effects of the sparse and forlorn closer Meet You In The Maze, The Colour In Anything is wall-to-wall longing for old flames and tales of relationships in freefall. It’s also infinitely beautiful; a meshing of gloomy piano and club-ready sounds that show Blake still can’t quite be pinned down.
“There is a whole aspect of love and a relationship on [Overgrown]. When it’s long distance, it’s slightly tragic. There is this kind of ‘we only have these moments together’ intensity. I’ve waited this long to find something like that, and when I did it was far away.”– James Blake, in an interview with Clash All of James Blake’s albums have been impacted by either the absence or the presence of love in his life.
When I first heard James Blake's voice through his "Wilhelm Scream," I pictured someone altogether different from a shy young lad with a blushing smile. I'm pretty sure everyone did. His computerized cries sounded of weathered experience and the quiet torment of someone who's seen more than he's wanted to. He sang as if possessed by ghosts of souls long forgotten, seeming to carry forward their yearning calls to be heard again.
The go-to punchline for anyone searching for a “sadboy”, James Blake’s renowned for his melancholy. It’s an unfair pinning, really – as tragic as his musical tales may be, anyone who dares to dig deeper will find countless other sides. He premiered Jamie xx tracks under the pretence they were new cuts from one “Simon Tallywhacker”, and created the character DJ Badger as an excuse to wheel Stephen Merchant onto his radio show.
On his third album, James Blake is where he has always been. A world of reverberating space, sparsely populated by stirring electronics and vocals both exquisite and distorted by the intensity of emotion (and a vocoder). But more people have pitched up in that spare, sonic landscape since Blake released his debut in 2011. Then, along with the xx, he was at the vanguard of this new and quietly revered style: a minimal, restrained and sensitive electronic pop that you could hear being gradually constructed over the course of the song itself, in which the evocative vocal was king.
"I've subdued a generation." That's what James Blake told The Guardian of his influence on popular music. At a time when hip-hop and R&B grow ever murkier, the statement rings true. First emerging as a dubstep wunderkind and then turning his eyes on computerized soul, he's become a favourite of artists like Drake and Kanye West, making an impact beyond what his music's meek, introspective nature might suggest.
As the old saying goes: a rising TIDAL of Lemonade lifts all boats. Thanks to the rising floodwaters that be Hurricane Bey, a co-writing credit on the slender 79 seconds of “Forward” floated James Blake back front and center with the surprise release of The Colour in Anything. And like the watercolor cover art depicts, there’s even a glint of light and new tonal colors to be found in Blake’s monochromatic sound.
Little was heard from James Blake throughout an almost three-year period that followed Overgrown, his second straight Top Ten U.K. album. He appeared on an Airhead track and released a 12" on his 1-800-Dinosaur label, yet it wasn't until February 2016, during his BBC Radio 1 program, that listeners got their initial taste of album three. Drawn like a scene from a dissolving relationship that immediately precedes release and relief, "Modern Soul" hinted that the album could be a bit brighter with less of the anguish that permeated the singer/producer's first two albums.
For a guy who specializes in quiet, forlorn music, James Blake can deliver quite an emotional wallop. Though he started out as a star of the London electronic avant-garde, his ability to mix downtempo dubstep textures with gospel-leaning piano balladry has won him writing credits on Beyoncé's Lemonade and the forthcoming Frank Ocean LP. Blake's third album (all 76 minutes of it) reaches back to the abstract electronics and agile, brittle beats of his early EPs while pushing his songwriting towards new levels of sad urgent grandeur.
The pure ambition of the 76-minute, 17-song The Colour in Anything suggests that the ennui of James Blake's clip-sized songwriting past might break into something personal and revelatory. The staggered piano bursts of “Modern Soul,” the pounding and melodramatic synths of “Love Me in Whatever Way,” and the consuming atmosphere of opener “Radio Silence” all communicate immediate emotion to the listener, but the album's stretches of tepid, half-finished ideas stall any sense of momentum. Ultimately, Blake's tonal sprawl allows him the type of endless tinkering and tedious introspection that positions him as increasingly detached—even unfeeling—as the album plods on.
At times, Drake can be an impressive… Wait, I’m not reviewing the new Drake? Could’ve fooled me. This felt even more colorless (y’know, despite the title) and tedious (76 minutes of an artist who had only ever written two or three songs, which is less than the number of songs Drake has written). Actually, surprisingly, most critics weren’t too lavish in their praise for this one (Pitchfork‘s Kevin Lozano: “He is never clever, catchy, or subtle.
The month of May certainly didn't overwhelm Carl and I as much as last month did, but it was still chock-full with important releases to whet our appetites until the summer begins. Carl was also significantly more generous - though he's completely enamored by James Blake's winning streak, I struggled to find nice things to say about Mutual Benefit and PUPs follow-up efforts. Maybe I was too busy being moody listening to Gorguts' ambitious metal opus.
It’s rather fitting that James Blake dropped his long-awaited third record The Colour in Anything in the same week when Radiohead released their own hotly-anticipated ninth record. Countless contemporary artists owe various stylistic flourishes to Thom Yorke & Co., but Blake owes them a particular debt with his mournful vocals, skittering electronic idiosyncrasies, and abstruse lyrics. Much like Blake’s first two records, The Colour in Anything offers generous portions of despairing, dub-inflected R&B and robotic folk.
A few months ago, James Blake was invited to collaborate with Beyoncé on her surprise new album Lemonade. He ended up helping to write the record’s opening track, as well as co-writing and singing on the song “Forward”. Two weeks down the line, Blake stole the spotlight for himself by using the very same surprise marketing strategy. On May 5th, during an interview with Annie Mac on Radio 1, Blake announced that his third full-length, The Colour in Anything, would be released at midnight.
Though it’s a coincidence that James Blake‘s third album arrives right after his guest spot on Beyoncé‘s ‘Lemonade’, the proximity highlights how far this Londoner with a laptop has come. Bey isn’t the only A-lister 27-year-old Blake has been collaborating with: Kanye West was initially slated to appear on ‘The Colour In Anything’ and Frank Ocean, Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and super-producer Rick Rubin have all contributed.At 76 minutes, ‘The Colour In Anything’ is around twice as long as Blake’s previous albums: 2010’s self-titled debut and 2013’s Mercury Prize-winning follow-up ‘Overgrown’. That’s obviously a lot to process, but Blake takes enough fresh detours to prevent it from becoming a slog.
If James Blake attracted any new listeners as a result of his appearances on Beyoncé's Lemonade, they might find his third album a bewildering experience. His fragile songs still have something in common with conventional pop music, but whereas his previous record, Overgrown, found him moving toward more accessible sounds, he's now put his experimental tendencies back in the foreground. Every time he comes close to writing a conventional piano ballad, he disrupts things with jagged textures, oceans of empty space or off-kilter sample loops.
James Blake’s third album, “The Colour in Anything,” is rainy-day music in excelsis. It is a protracted, unresolved, feeling of inward emotion, demanding that you notice its small details. It’s all detail, really. Mr. Blake came out of English dubstep in 2009, and moved quickly toward a ….