It is proving a long journey for James Blake to find his musical home, his style being rooted mainly in diametrically opposed genres – namely dubstep and that of a singer-songwriter. His second long player Overgrown sees him further confound and impress with his reluctance to slot neatly into a distinguishable category; it can feel schizophrenic as it veers from hushed piano-led ballads to overbearing blasts of electronica, but do we need to be spoon-fed? He might still be grasping for that perfect selection of songs (and this is by no means it) but half the worth in Blake’s music is how he experiments with different ideas to see which holds his, and our own, attention.
Time spent in the company of Justin Vernon, while recording ‘Falls Creek Boys Choir’ for the Enough Thunder EP, and rapper Kanye West have pulled Blake’s style in even less tangible directions. At the outset, it’s very much de rigeur James Blake: obscure but literate lyrics sang with quietly bruised vocals; sparse electronica building to a dramatic resolution. If the opening duo of tracks – ‘Overgrown’ and ‘I am Sold’ – sound slightly business as usual, they at least showcase a new sense of lyrical ability in his music.
‘Life Round Here’ is the first glimpse of a new direction for Blake on the album. Fat bass lines and almost 8-bit keys slide along over clicking rim shots. His voice flits perfectly amidst the dark R & B, coming up with something that sounds comfortably new. This slick groove is put to even better use on neo-soul-flavoured ‘Retrograde’. It’s possibly his strongest moment to date: layers of his vocals intertwine through a paced hand-clap led beat and swelling synth. Tracks like this merit the acclaim lauded on him after the release of James Blake. It is soulful, modern and the highlight of the album.
Brian Eno-produced ‘Digital Lion’ comes a close second. Light on lyrics but heavy on atmosphere, it is the closest successor to his earlier electronica works here. Employing his vocals as an instrument, once again his love of random noise-scapes has it travel from a crawl through a reverse breakbeat and back again under Eno’s direction.
Elsewhere, things don’t gel quite so well. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA makes an appearance on ‘Take a Fall for Me’, but it never really lives up to the interest of its proposition. The music doesn’t compliment the New York native’s rap the way you would expect Blake’s sound would, but once again he has to be commended for experimenting with new forms of delivery: whereas Justin Vernons vocals were over produced on ‘Falls Creek Boys Choir’, RZA is given centre-stage with the music darkly trickling in the background.
While not a failure by any means, OVERGROWN doesn’t quite ignite like you would have hoped. It needs to be heard the same way all the chapters of a book need to be read. There may be some weaker moments, but it is never boring and always innovative; though, as a whole, undemanding of a repeat listen. Still, there is that lingering feeling that he has a perfectly crafted destination in mind but is in no rush to get there.