Courtesy of the artist
James Blake. Courtesy of the artist
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Sitting between the concrete walls of my dimly lit basement apartment, I plopped in James Blake's debut full-length for a first listen, unaware of how fitting a space I was in. Cold, open and striking, my cavern resonated at first with a crunch, then a kick, and then a croon that severed my train of thought, commanding all of my attention.
Where had this worn cry come from? The same 21-year-old who released three EPs in 2010? On those records, Blake conveyed similarly poignant emotion, but mostly by sampling others' vocals and interlacing them with snippets of his own. In October, a cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love" surfaced, showing that Blake could belt out a lead, but that song hadn't prepared me for the delicate soul now pouring from my speakers.
As a producer, Blake lets his work shine in the details. Take the first single from his new album: "The Wilhelm Scream" is led in by a simple back-and-forth between a drum and a high hat, at which point his voice enters with a meager pan, slightly staggering the melody on the left side of the audio spectrum. As punctuating hollow pops echo down chilly tunnels, a steadily rising chord shifts under mounting static and reverb. Eventually, the clutter gives way to an arrangement that mirrors the openness of the song's beginning, making breathing room for the a cappella intro of "I Never Learned to Share."
This interplay between isolated sounds and layered textures bolsters the impact of each. Blake's voice draws much of its power from its absence, rising from dramatic pauses with swooning charisma. The line "patience is a virtue" comes to mind — the record's most dramatic spike in energy arrives three songs in, while the rest prickles with restraint. This is good for fans of Blake's EPs, as well as for those who've previously found the meters and instrumentation of dubstep challenging. For all its merits, the most exciting thing about this debut is that it offers unfamiliar listeners an accessible and beautiful entry point into London's vibrant electronic scene.