MusicWeekend

Even in Love, James Blake Hovers Somewhere Just Out of Reach

James Blake performing in 2013 (photo by Henry Laurisch/Wikimedia Commons)
James Blake performing in 2013 (photo by Henry Laurisch/Wikimedia Commons)

The British singer and electronic producer James Blake’s music has many of the qualities I’m elementally drawn to. It’s moody, minimal, and monumental, my three M’s. It furnishes abstract forms with vital energies of resistance and tension. It refines stillness from rhythm, silence from sound, and space from compression, a whiplash in a line running from Messiaen and Morton Feldman through Brian Eno. But Blake stills time in his own way, tying it in recursive loops instead of trawling extreme durations.

These qualities all resound through an eerily tranquil bass meditation from Blake’s new album, The Colour in Anything. Like all of his music, “Timeless” animates a liminal state — the moment just before or after an event, slowed down and blown up. This is what romance does, too, which roots Blake’s music in sensuality at a level below its undulant rhythms and clenching, gasping vocals. All of these allures I understand. But as with everything I find durably transfixing, there is also something that eludes me, a palpable but inaccessible essence. I keep listening because I want to grasp it, and so the music generates the very frustrated desire it addresses.

In the spring of 2013, Blake performed at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina. He was on tour for his second album, Overgrown, whose cryptic, severe beauty seemed inextricable from its sculptural sense of stereo space, frequency, and timbre, its otherworldly stasis. I wondered how its volatile synthesizers, hissing basses, and rococo drums could possibly make it to the stage with all their detail, precision, and physicality intact. Maybe my tempered expectations were partly why the concert made a profound impression.

But there was another reason, too. I was coming off of a seven-year-long partnership that had ended — how else? — painfully. After a couple of weeks of solitary day drinking, I had spent a few more working up a head of steam in my nightlife. For me, Overgrown had become an obsidian funerary monument, but one with the dark gleam of new possibilities. I was feeling open, raw, intense, and slightly mad, but better. I’d met someone, and I intuited something in store for us. She wasn’t there that night, but my ex was, lost in the dense crowd. So I was primed to be transfigured, or at least to forget myself in the black nepenthe of Blake’s bass.

After all, desire and oblivion are the forces catalyzing his music. His lyrics measure the distances of intimacy under the cover of darkness, where the space between two people might be a handbreadth or a chasm. His compositions fix intertwined figures in crepuscular friezes. “And we lay nocturnal / Speculate what we feel,” he repeats in a fluting voice on “I Am Sold,” as the bass reverberates like a wide, shallow shaman’s drum. No matter how near to each other any two things draw, whether they’re people or slivers of time, infinitely divisible spans prevent them from ever touching, as in the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Everything spins in its own little force field, strange cosmoses interlocking.

Blake’s engineering artifice draws attention away from his musicianship, but live, he struck a fertile compromise between his recordings’ uncanny equilibrium and the immediacy of performance, turning an experience of intimate alienation into a communal purge. As he coaxed the beveled shapes of his loop collages from his keyboards in real time, his voice was like a hologram, somehow high and low, pure and creaky at once. A drummer’s electronic snare was so loud and crisp you could almost see the reverb spraying like ice off the head with each hit. The bass, no mere timekeeper in an idiom where everything keeps its own time, was an abstraction, an idea, a force. “Retrograde,” which slows rave music to the pace of soul music, melted the club in a fountain of black sparks. Strangers threw their arms around each other’s shoulders, the crowd bobbing low to the saturnine beats as one organism.

The cover of James Blake's new album, 'The Colour in Anything' (via Amazon)
The cover of James Blake’s new album, ‘The Colour in Anything’ (via Amazon)

If I went in a big fan, I came out evangelical. Then three years passed without a follow-up, while Blake tinkered with parts and worked on a still unreleased collaboration with Kanye West. But on May 6, not long after Blake appeared on Beyoncé’s surprise album, Lemonade, he released a surprise of his own: The Colour in Anything, his third LP. After a period of indecision and drift, the album rattled loose from Blake along with the start of a new romantic relationship, and the change is evident. Compared to the cold alien obelisks of Overgrown, the songs are warm and watery, more approachable and freewheeling, sometimes even quirky rather than grave.

There are still a number of tracks caught in hypnotic spirals of regret. “Points” is fashioned around a thrumming braid of the words “no longer,” while in “Radio Silence,” the phrases “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me / I don’t know how you feel” cycle ominously through insensate harmonies and nervously whirring drums. Blake’s characteristic ability to syncopate odd shapes that speed up, slow down, and deform space is in full force. Time actually speaks: He doesn’t pronounce the word “me” in the lyric quoted above, but you hear it because it’s so rhythmically implicit.

But then comes “Love Me in Whatever Way” with a vocal performance of striking continuity. There are many others like it on the record, where long skeins of uncut lyrics scroll along in digitally sweetened, multi-tracked harmony. Blake sounds more than ever like a dissipated choirboy singing R&B. His radiant falsetto imperceptibly dims into catacombs of vocal fry, or sails out and wavers as pristinely as a chime. His voice’s wide range of timbres allows it to weave in and out of the music through sonority and texture alone, without edits, which preserves the virtual nature, the essential distance, of his music in the freer context.

The Colour in Anything is a being-in-love album where Overgrown was an out-of-love album. As it happens, once again, I can relate. The someone-new from that 2013 concert has now been my partner for several years, so the record is another mirror for me, a brighter one. Maybe there’s no mystery to grasp, and my affinity for Blake is just a quirk of timing, a solipsistic recognition. But I still believe there’s something secreted there, and that it must be the thing we all want most—all that which we can never have, the dark heart of love, its ultimate otherness. Blake’s music vividly summons a sense of it and then barricades it in warped time and space. It gets inside you, but you can never quite get inside it.

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