James Blake: Style Over Substance?

I became aware of James Blake through his heavily reworked mashup of Kelis' "Caught Out There" and Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody" on the title track from his CMYK EP. I was intrigued enough to hunt down a copy of the full EP but then it kind of got lost in the shuffle and I didn't really pay much attention to it. Fast forward nearly 12 months and the anticipation and excitement surrounding the release of his self-titled debut has seemingly come out of nowhere.

A few months ago he was a virtual unknown, except by those few who were hip to CMYK and his Klavierwerke EP, but now it seems he is the new "alternative" poster boy. Having read much of the online press and discussing the album with fellow music heads, it seems that those who are aware of Blake fall into two camps. The first camp are those who view him as a genius and who dismiss any criticism aimed at him as not "getting" him. Everyone from Pitchfork and middle/upper class UK newspapers to bloggers to commercial radio addicts have been singing his praises non-stop and the BBC named him as #2 on their "Sound of 2011" list--one spot below Jessie J and two spots above Jamie Woon. Then there are those who, to quote a fellow Twitter follower, think his material is "style over substance," and think that all the fuss is just music industry's hype machine in overdrive. So the question that begs to be answered remains: Is all the fanfare surrounding the release justified? Is he really a slightly awkward, geeky musical genius or is this much ado about nothing?

The first single from the album, a cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love" was definitely the turning point in Blake's story. The dark, melancholy lyrics combined with Blake's signature combination of thumping bass and prolonged periods of silence was definitely an attention grabber and gained him a whole army of new fans. Compared to the other 10 tracks on the release this is far and away the most accessible and the most traditional in terms of song structure. I had it on repeat for days and the video just cemented my love for it. Another track that was heard way before the official release, and a serious contender for my favourite cut, is the haunting "The Willhelm Scream". Opening with the line "I don't know about my dreams, I don't know about my dreaming anymore/ All that I know is I'm falling" gives a good indication of the albums overall mood--somber, melancholy, moody--it's certainly not something you would stick on to lift your spirits. The heavy use of repetition is another of Blake's trademarks and is present on the track following "The Wilhelm Scream." "I Never Learnt To Share" is not so much a song, as it is a mantra. Backed by an organ, and later with the addition of heavy synths, the refrain "My brother and my sister don't speak to me, but I don't blame them" is repeated over and over. The track slowly builds in intensity and makes an almost painful listen, but in a good, deeply emotional, heart-wrenching way.

"Lindesfarne I", a stripped back, acapella track consisting of incoherent, Auto-tuned vocals fairs less well than its predecessors, and "Lindesfarne II" similarly fails to engage or impress. "Give Me My Month" probably comes closest to "Limit To Your Love" in terms of accessibilty, as Blake shuns the use of vocal distortions and electronic instrumentation in favour of a simple piano backing and un-adorned vocals. However, it lacks the immediacy of "Limit..." and the vulnerability of "Wilhelms Scream" and "I Never Learnt To Share" leaving the listner a little cold. Much like a rollercoaster, things pick up once again on "To Care (Like You)". Here Blake expertly marries the 'style' and the 'substance', distorting vocals to such an extent that it feels like there are 10+ people contributing. All the electro beeps and glitches somehow manage to give rise to something that can't quite be labelled as sexy, but has a sensualness that may well make it an addition to the bedroom playlists of those who like their love songs a little left of centre.

The remaining tracks on James Blake fall somewhere between the greatness of "Limit To Your Love" and the mediocrity of "Lindesfarne I." There are certainly glimmers of genius, and three or four of the tracks are unwaveringly excellent, but I feel what this album lacks is a consistency and a propensity to overplay the sonic trickery. I may be wrong, but my guess is that Blake is being hailed as a musical messiah by many beacuse he is seen as cool, the new "it" kid. Is he, therefore,  style over substance? Overall, I'd say no. I genuinely believe the album is great overall and a few tracks will certainly be played heavily for the forseeable future, but at times one does get the feeling that the hype overstates the reality.

  • Dymond

    Good review. I agree with your twit follower - style over substance. However, I do like the album for it's simple melodies and it's complex production. May not recieve mainstream attention w/this one, but has the possibility to garner it in the near future.

  • Taye Diggumsmacks

    I've been listening to this album for a couple of months now and I still don't know what to make of it. The current hype has me listening to it with suspicious ears. I'm seeing words like "genius" and "innovative" being carelessly attached to his name, when the truth is, I don't see what path he's paved that hasn't already been thoroughly traveled, and with better songs.
    It's most definitely mood music, which is by no means a bad thing. It’s a “2:25am lava lamp” soundtrack. And I like his tone. He has the trip-hop breathy vocal down pat. But it lacks attention-grabbing compositions, and fades easily into the background. Whilst I dig some of the haunting ambiance, I think its repetitive elements actually weigh it down. "Limit To Your Love" is the standout here, and I think I get it: the repetition, the silence matches the song’s subject - that your love is lacking, that perhaps you’re holding back or that you truly have no depth to your soul.
    Fine. But repeating this production process over the course of a full album makes it stagnant and frigid. I found myself waiting for the fireworks to pop, to break up the monotony…(And a bad hair cut and warm Tang to anyone believing his version of “Limit” is more soulful/heartfelt than Feist's
    What’s also bugging me is, I can’t imagine paying to see him perform this. Viewing some of his performance clips, there was little to no energy.
    I don't think the album is wack by any means. But it may be one of those things I have to step away from and allow it to catch me off guard, surprise me.