These days, the de rigueur approach to a cutting edge sound is taking pop music you adore – music that transports you to a time of young lust, sweat and R.Kelly – and digitally manipulating it into a format that, if it still existed, would have Plan B magazine fizzing all over whatever is the 2011 equivalent of Big Apple Records in Croydon. Hype Williams, How To Dress Well, James Blake – this shit is the shit. The more cynical amongst you may cock a snook at the latter: a William Blake-admiring spawn of dubstep who counts The xx’s Jamie Smith as a friend and the hyper-hip Mount Kimbie, Joy Orbison and Ramadanman as contemporaries but Blake’s music speaks for itself.
While the aforementioned Smith’s precocious Mercury-snaffling trio The xx shoved sparse electronic-based music into the mainstream, three quite different EPs from 23-year-old Blake last year gave a solid cross-section of what he’s about: genre-blending, space and throbbing bass. This eponymous and, astonishingly, debut album essentially abandons the dubby, chopped-up, sample-heavy nature of much of Blake’s output to date and embraces an approach comparable to such pioneers as Arthur Russell or Bonnie Prince Billy – both of whom the young producer admires – in its commitment to melody, a deeply personal mood and sonic experimentalism that remains deliciously immediate.
The devastating fragility of ‘Wilhelm’s Scream’, as witnessed on Blake’s recent BBC sessions, must be heard to be believed while the knowledge that he is an only child does nothing to diminish the power of ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ where he loops and distorts his voice crying, “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me – but I don’t blame them” over and over again as the song twists and bends upwards toward a dubbed-out, brain-crushing crescendo. The Bon Iver influence is palpable on gorgeous two-parter ‘Lindesfarne I’ and ‘Lindisfarne II’, giving way to the now ubiquitous ‘Limit To Your Love’ Feist cover, in which bass is put to its absolute best use: as a big fat weapon to make your arse quiver nervously.
Of all the tracks here, it is perhaps ‘To Care (Like You)’ that best represents the soulful-croon-meets-dubstep drrrrrop that Blake is peddling as the solo opening vocals are overrun by a racing electronic drip, ominous wobble and carefully diced, pitch-shifted vocals. If the term post-dubstep appears somewhat glib or reductive, it does a good job of capturing the vibe of what it is Blake does or at least where he’s coming from. His mastery of instruments and technology combined with delicate vocals, a less-is-more attitude, a predilection for wub-wubbing bass and a ridiculously gifted ear for an angelic melody help make James Blake an absorbing listen from start to finish.
There is a constant urge to hear the next blip, thump, echo, click or plaintive cry and by the time the album’s over you realise you’ve been hanging on every sound, line and gap in his robo-gospel world. Whatever direction Blake takes next, and going on previous form it will morph somehow, nothing will ever sound like James Blake again so drink it all in, every note and every ear-splitting silence.