With a clench of the stomach and a shiver up the spine, James Blake’s third studio album begins with a hauntingly beautiful hum and impassioned verse that verges on desperation — “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me.” It’s this desperation, this longing and this haunting beauty that resonates throughout The Colour of Anything.
Two weeks ago, murals painted by Sir Quentin Blake of Roald Dahl fame popped up in London and Brooklyn, announcing the name of Blake’s third album. Following suit, The Colour of Anything was unexpectedly released a week later on May 6th after Blake abruptly announced its impending availability on a radio show earlier that same day. Though after a year of virtual silence from the musician and three years since his last album, this seventeen track spectacle of perfectly curated beats and zealous emotion could come no sooner.
The Colour of Anything is a grand display of Blake’s talent as a producer, lyricist and musician. Blake has previously disavowed the testosterone-oriented market of dubstep musicians in favor of a more carefully crafted, post-dubstep approach. In his words, his music is oriented towards a broader population of both men and women. It’s not necessarily mass appeal he’s searching for, but equal appeal.
His previous records achieved exactly this. Whether it was the integration of R&B and soul into Overgrown, or the bare nature of his self-titled debut, Blake spun stories and beats that echoed through the body in a manner that dubstep had not yet achieved. It was the poetry, the stories grounded in emotion, that presented this untapped potential. And now on his third album, Blake still crafts stories through his lyrics, but this time he tells his own deeply personal ones of love and loss and intense self-examination.
Blake is neither a spurned lover nor a bitter loner on this album. Instead he plays the part of a man unable to come to terms with the gradual disintegration of a relationship and the endless torture that accompanies that fateful end. Ambivalence reigns king as Blake offers pleas to his withdrawing partner with concurrent ruminations on whether love is lasting.
The beats on this album range from sparse to all-consuming to nonexistent. A desperate proclamation introduces “Radio Silence” as the track immediately immerses itself in a sequence of electronic instrumentation and hi hats that bring the listener to the brink with each passing tick. “It’s hard to tell if I don’t know how you feel” — with these words we are thrown into the silence that characterized Blake’s dying relationship but are carried through on a wave of synths and longing.
“Love Me in Whatever Way” follows a similar vein with cries of submission on Blake’s end of the relationship. In this song he extolls his desire to do and be anything his partner wants as long as it means they won’t be giving up. And just so, Blake proclaims over a sample of Donny Hathaway’s “Giving Up” and a laugh track reminiscent of Father John Misty’s “Bored in the U.S.A.,” “but giving up is hard to do.” He searches for reassurance in unrequited love on a Shakespearean scale as he compares this diminishing love to a rose, a flower known for its transient beauty — its allure that fades quickly. Blake’s poetic adeptness is most evident on this track.
While his poetic skill is clear in “Love Me in Whatever Way,” his ability to reconcile conflicting sounds into a single, fluid track is clearest on “Put That Away and Talk to Me.” The sonic landscape of this track is incredible as he describes the “staticness” of a creative block that weighed on him in the early months of 2015. The spliced vocal distortion “Can you tell me about the early days?” vibrates over the delicate instrumentation and clash of cymbals that alternate between languid and harsh. It’s an accumulation of sounds that simply shouldn’t work, but Blake manipulates them into a cohesive whole.
“Radio Silence” and “Love Me” may express Blake’s willingness to change in order to make his love stay, but “Points” juxtaposes this theme with lamentations of “It’s sad that you’re no longer her.” This balance of sentiments adds a new layer of depth thematically and musically, as this track is one of multiple synths artfully layered as each burst highlights Blake’s sadness building to a cathartic finale.
The whirring sounds of multi-layered tracks like “Points” and “Put that Down” are underpinned by Blake’s skill as a pianist. As a producer able to harmonize conflicting sounds, Blake’s foundation as a musician is in the keyboard and piano. This talent is made abundantly clear in the title track and “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” which champions purity in the form of Blake at a piano, once again pouring out his heart to us. Blake’s affinity for balance is displayed in these songs, for while he presents abrasive and experimental tracks like “Two Men Down,” he contrasts them with the bare talent of a classically trained pianist.
Collaboration with other producers was heavily emphasized leading up to this album. Although the promised Kanye verse failed to materialize on “Timeless,” breathtaking features from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon spun “I Need A Forest Fire” into a falsetto masterpiece as their complementing voices relay delicacy and provoke urgency in the words “We need a forest fire” — a fire that burns the romantic past to the ground and will allow them to start anew.
And then there’s Frank Ocean’s presence in songs like “My Willing Heart,” which he co-wrote with Blake, and “Always.” “My Willing Heart” serves as one of the most powerful tracks on the album with a whirring synth and thumping beat accompanied by lethargic piano as Blake meditates on the promise of 21st century love. During a time when heated and clandestine love affairs are endlessly promoted by the media, how can one know when the love one feels is true?
This question is quickly followed by the most emotionally charged song on the album, “Choose Me,” which transitions from Blake’s graceful vocals to a thumping, heartbeat rhythm. And as the pace quickens, so does Blake’s desperation as he contemplates the weight of a diamond ring and the power of suggestion. It’s an emotional release of momentous proportion as the vocal distortion and quickening beats hit their peak, and Blake’s voice grows in agitation and distress.
But just as the degeneration of Blake’s relationship with love is dictated over the course of this album, so is his relationship with music. Permanence as an artist and public perception is a perpetual fear of his that gnaws at his creative process, as he contemplates on “Modern Soul” and the concluding track “Meet You in the Maze.” On “Modern Soul” it’s a crossroad of change he faces in the first verse as his life as a musician transitions from one of modest beginnings to potential, earth-shattering fame.
It’s a sentiment he has expressed before, for just as he meditated on Overgrown, he can’t decipher whether he’ll be lasting musician or a glimmer in a genre he hopes to change. This is what is so terrifyingly magnificent about the concluding song “Meet You in the Maze.” Whether it is a maze of existence or music he is trapped in, he ruminates over and over that “Music can’t be everything.” It’s as if we are witnessing a conversation with himself, and thus the self-examination that exists intrinsically within this album finds its focal point in this track. The influence of co-writer Justin Vernon in the concluding song is clear though. It is decorated with a sparse but layered a cappella unfolding over five minutes and leaving all raw, unbeguiled emotion out in the open.
Blake tells conjoining stories of struggle and desire on The Colour of Anything. A mammoth, seventeen-track collection of raw beats and synths coated in melancholy vocals, this album manages to capture fear, desperation, anxiety, longing and transience in a way that overwhelms the senses of the listener. Songs build to a cathartic release that nearly break into dance-floor EDM tracks, but never quite make it there. He dances precariously on this line many times, but pulls back just in time — it’s the ultimate exercise in restraint. The beats shatter and shake, resonating through the mind, heart and skeletal cages as his desperate yearning takes on a personal note that invites his audience into the far stretches of his torment. There is no alienation in this familiarity though. Rather, it introduces the listener to the kind of raw emotion that makes a person long for feelings not yet felt and ache with nostalgia for a life unlived.