Album Review: James Blake, “Overgrown”

(Originally written for Reverb1)

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In 2011, James Blake’s self-titled debut gave listeners something they didn’t know they wanted. As producer and songwriter, Blake laid his delicate falsetto over a mixture of reverb-laden UK dubstep and ambient music to captivating effect. With one foot in the old songwriting tradition and another in cutting-edge electronic sound craft, it sounded like the sort of true 21st century singer-songwriter album that folks from an earlier time could only dream up in a pulpy sci-fi novel.

Since then, Blake has released two EPs, each showcasing opposite halves of his musical duality: “Enough Thunder,” featured some of his sparest ivory-tickling to date, while “Love What Happened Here” had him favoring the computer keyboard, unloading a veritable SD card of field recordings and synth lines into an overstuffed 15 minutes. Each suggested Blake treading down a different path toward his next major project.

The question for his sophomore LP was not which Blake would show—he has a dedicated side project for his producer-only endeavors—but in what ratio.

With “Overgrown,” Blake has arranged his talents in their most potent amalgam yet. Though it’s most closely related to his debut album, “Overgrown” is more dynamic than the S/T, switching out the doomed, ambient beats he once leaned on for layered rhythms that range from soul to house to hip-hop—or James Blake’s version of them, anyway.

There is a through line in terms of tone here, but it isn’t as pronounced as you may initially think. If Blake’s S/T felt like spending 40 minutes in a digital ice cave, “Overgrown” explores the snowy woods around its mouth. It’s still blue, but more organic, expansive and in its own way, lush. These qualities are apparent from the get go of the album, wherein Blake hums a simple melody over the keys of a distant but recognizable piano. When the synth do come in the track’s pre-chorus swells, it’s with light and endorphins, not binary-coded gloom. “Retrograde,” the album’s deserved single, pulls a similar trick, but to a disorienting effect.

“Overgrown”‘s moments of glee are underscored because of the relative cloudy atmosphere surrounding them. Even if Blake drops a ripe freestyle beat, on “Life Round Here,” for example, his deft songwriting won’t betray the emotion he’s after: “Part time life is the life round here / we’re never done / everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day.” (Pretty sure he’s not talking about football there.) When the RZA shows up on sore thumb “Take A Fall For Me” with comparatively ham-fisted verses, he isn’t rapping about getting women, but losing one.

Still, even in the album’s most dizzying and anxious moments (the Brian Eno-collab “Digital Lion,” hands down) there’s always an inviting beat or mesmerizing soundscape to catch you. As both skilled songwriter and dub step maven, Blake has always been after your mind or your body. On “Overgrown,” he gets them at the same time.

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