From the very first record that he released, James Blake has been steadily developing his ability to translate the sounds of isolation into a sonic context better known for communal hip-shaking. It made total sense when he made the move from post-dubstep poster boy to soulful keyboard crooner, and his lyrics reflected the anxieties you would expect from a lovesick twenty year old who knew a thing or two about loneliness (references to siblings on his debut were purely poetic; Blake is an only child).
That said, it was not the smoothest of transitions. All of his releases so far included some brilliant songs and many interesting ones, but were burdened by too many moments that were easier to admire than actually enjoy. That all changes with The Colour In Anything. It feels weird to say it, but this 17-track album, with the most collaborations Blake has done to date, that’s almost the length of his first two albums put together, is the most focused and enjoyable album he has released so far.
The collaborations may have something to do with it. Blake has made inroads into the mainstream by being one of the featured guests on Beyonce’s recent world-conquering Lemonade, and he approached this album with the goal of relinquishing some control over his songs. The album is co-produced by Def Jam heavyweight Rick Rubin, and I can only imagine the two staunch minimalists working in the studio together must have been a match made in heaven.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon contributes some writing and vocals, but don’t expect Blake to suddenly sound bucolic. This is definitely more in the vein of Vernon’s more experimental EP work, and the sound of the two voices meshing on ‘I Need A Forest Fire’ is heavenly. I would pay good money to see the two make a whole album together. Blake also worked with Frank Ocean and Kanye West, though the latter does not make an appearance here, which considering how clumsily RZA slid into Overgrown, was probably for the best. The influence of hip-hop is still present in Rubin’s production, felt in the skittering drum machines, and there is more than a few shades of Madlib’s Quasimoto alter-ego when Blake deploys a pitch-shifted automaton at the beginning of ‘My Willing Heart’.
Make no mistake though – despite the presence of others this is a James Blake album through and through, and it features his strongest songwriting yet. Nothing here sounds unfinished or like an idea in need of further exploration: every song, even the more abstract ones, feel like they arrived fully formed. Blake has always had a magnificent voice, but here he twists and shapes his vocal cords in every direction as the song allows. Lyrically, it reflects the forming of Blake’s current relationship and the realisation that happiness is not a block to creativity, as he once believed. ‘Meet You In The Maze’, the gorgeous acapella track that closes the album softly intones that “music can’t be everything”. That line encapsulates the central theme of the album, why it’s such a success and why the prospect of more to come from James Blake is so enticing: the joy of maturity.