Let’s be out with it now, this isn’t dubstep. At least, not anymore. James Blake has been hailed as some sort of ambassador for the genre — but when it comes down to it, his music’s so isolated from dubstep’s distinctions that it falls somewhere far, far beyond it. There’s predilection for bass, syrupy keyboards, low BPMs and all — sure. But as an artist, Blake is now cutting closer on territory we might be not be as willing to admit loving. Because when all is said and done, James Blake, his singular debut, is a chilly piece of white soul music.

James Blake

James Blake
A&M/ Atlas

The 22-year-old producer-turned-midnight soul man’s third and fourth EPs hinted at the divide. CMYK, released in 2010, played the dub game a bit, with clipped vocal samples, stuttering beats and ketamine keyboards. But Klavierwerke, his second 2010 release, pulled the rug from under the wobblers. Here, Blake’s beats and keys subdued, spaces were left blank and the only voice on the whole thing was Blake’s own. Topping the year with a cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” with its stately piano, hollow silences and Blake’s voice in the nude, reviews seemed afraid to even usher the word … “singer-songwriter.”

So the album’s title feels more than appropriate. Blake’s music still has the anxiety and gloom of great dubstep, but he’s married it to an almost unfashionable vulnerability. If Burial’s Untrue was the sound of pop’s ghosts cutting through atmosphere toward emotion, then James Blake grabbed the baton, sat down at the piano and decided to let them rest in peace and do it alone.

James Blake doesn’t sound much like anything else right now, but shares common ground with a growing renaissance in electronic music vocals. If we’re to trace it back, any number of relevant name-drops would help explain things. Prince, ’90s R&B, D’Angelo, early house … in it all, there’s a willful desire to expose the singer but manipulate his or her voice. Nicolas Jaar is doing it in the house context, How To Dress Well’s carving his own niche, and even, say, Autre Ne Veut’s pop is reveling in the proximity and distance of his own vocals. Blake’s treatment of his voice echoes these contemporaries, but treads transparent water.

Like any great producer, the talent is clear in Blake’s attention to detail. His beats, chords and grooves swerve and lock with steely precision, tension and color. The songs without “beats” per se make their own; whether paired with piano or vocals flipped up and down on a chromatic dial ranging from ghoulish sub-bass to a tender falsetto collapse. The album functions nicely in a living room, but if you don’t have nice speakers, do yourself a favor and get some nice headphones. Blake’s facets deserve your attention, especially when the songs fail to grab it.

Because Blake sits on a sort of nebulous divide, its songs do too. Looking for the warmth and openness of the singer-songwriter? These songs won’t provide that cleanly cut emotional release. Looking for bangers, or more appropriately, bumpers? These songs have their moments. Blake is an album filled with great moments, wading mid-tempo in unfamiliar territory, but you wish Blake would dig into both pools even deeper.

Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” condense everything Blake’s done well into four-and-a-half minutes. With a steady metronomic pace, Blake croons, “I don’t know about my dreams / I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore” as lines of melody drip and spin around him. Building to a furious surge of texture, he repeats his mantra, admitting, “All that I know is / I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’ / might as well fall” and we’re more than willing to go with him — even if we know he can fall further.

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