James Blake is an anomaly in electronic music. Over the course of his short career, Blake has navigated the genre of drop-less dubstep with a singer-songwriter sensibility, increasingly incorporating his own voice among the synths and samples of his production. In 2011, he completely abandoned his layered, digital sound for a spare piano on his rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which thrust Blake’s quivering voice into the front of the mix and revealed him as a distinctive vocalist with a style greatly indebted to the California songstress.
On his latest release, Overgrown, Blake has matured as a singer and composer, sprinkling shades of Joni, hip hop and R&B over his most sophisticated production yet. The album’s title track opens the record by immersing the listener in a gloomy atmosphere of plinking keyboards before Blake appears, showcasing his potent lyrical and vocal abilities with the line, “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore / Long door, frame the wall, when everything’s overgrown.”
With the the exception of the song “Voyeur,” the glitchy vocal loops of Blake’s 2010 self-titled debut are mostly absent on Overgrown, replaced by (relatively) traditional song structures and the ascendance of Blake’s un-manipulated vocals. “Voyeur” begins with a looping of Blake’s bleak melody and slowly inflates into a trance-like dance anthem for The xx generation.
“Dlm” and the closer, “Our Love Comes Back,” combine the heartbreaking vocal intonations of Blake’s Joni Mitchell cover with subtle electronic production. Both songs presumably yearn for the return of a former lover and represent the pensive, cathartic form that Blake has slowly mastered over the years.
Overgrown’s two featured performances provide further diversity on an already genre-bending album. Blake takes the backseat, for instance, on “Take a Fall For Me,” a sullen track which finds rapper RZA ruminating on marriage and lost love for 48 bars over some eerily Wu-Tang-esque production. Similarly, on the track “Digital Lion,” Blake recedes and allows the ambient synths of guest Brian Eno to carry the heft of the mesmerizing song.
The album’s lead single “Retrograde” is a stunning ballad that enters delicately with minimalist production — a repeating hand clap and some somber humming from Blake — and builds to a remarkable clash of synths with the song’s chorus. At this point in his career, “Retrograde” is Blake’s masterpiece — the culmination of his various talents packaged within a futuristic pop hit.
In his four-year career, James Blake has blurred the lines of electronic and R&B music and picked up some notable fans in the process (Kanye West, Jay-Z and Stevie Wonder, to name a few). Though Overgrown is likely too dark and sonically perplexing to become a Billboard hit, the album certainly establishes Blake as a groundbreaker — the leader and sole inhabitant of an “overgrown” genre, a shadowy pop revolution that’s matured too far ahead of its time.