A&M / Atlas
Although we don't often stop and think about it, digital culture's influence on our lives has increased tremendously in the last 10 years. Capitalized by the rise of smart phones, laptops, and social networking, the internet now has command over almost every moment of our days and has changed how everything from politics to personal relationships play out in society. Music is no different and has always very much existed in the crux of the digital dialogue. Radiohead's Kid A, released 11 years ago way ahead of its time, was a prophetic expression of the "digital anxiety" that was at hand with its avant-garde art pop changing the way people understood electronic music. Unlike the paranoia of their apocalyptic release, OK Computer, Kid A was a reflection on the loss of community and identity that the digital age ushered in. Through the lenses of dubstep, AutoTune, and electronica, James Blake has crafted his very own haunting brand of electronic art pop that is many ways a fulfillment of Kid A. You won't hear that reference come up though. Instead Blake claims to be influenced by everything from jazz to indie pop (then again, saying you're influenced by Kid A is kind of unnecessary).
In the first single, "Wilhelms Scream", Blake repeats variations on a single line throughout the song: "I don't know about my love/I don't know about my lovin' anymore/All I know is that I'm fallin/Fallin, fallin, fallin/Might as well fall". After almost getting washed out by walls of synth and added harmonic textures, the melody that starts out as fragile and unsettling is strangely bluesy and satisfying by the end. "I Never Learnt to Share" follows a similar route, starting out as an isolated vocal line surrounded by dissonant harmonies and ending somewhere that includes some jazzy seventh chords and dubstep electronica. Blake's repetition is used to great effect in both these songs, conjuring the language of minimalism in the context of a digital discourse on isolation. The music feels like humanity crying out beneath the weight of technology and modernism, still feeling those same human emotions and finding ways to express them.
The songs aren't all downers though; "Lindesfarne" and "Lindesfarne II" find comfort in the arms of AutoTuned harmonies, taking cues from Bon Iver and Imogen Heap. With his manipulated and overdubbed vocals always being the focal point, Blake even turns his voice into an electronic gospel choir to great effect in the final track, "Measurements". Heady artistic experimentation always feels like the primary priority in Blake's art songs and that ultimately is what will keep it the album from feeling focused. Although being birthed in the environment of dubstep, it would have been great to hear the influence get through more. Unlike other's hopes that James Blake will introduce American white people to dubstep, I don't think Blake's self-titled debut is accessible enough or "dubstep" enough to do it. However, that doesn't take anything away from what this thing is: a truly poignant album of timely electronic art music. With the amount of music Blake has produced within the last year, I think its safe to say that this isn't the last we will be hearing of James Blake either.
James Blake - Wilhem's Scream