James Blake is an oddity. You could even call him a space oddity, since an essential part of his music is the space he allows to interrupt his songs. Bad jokes aside, Blake occupies an unique part of the musical spectrum. Ostensibly labeled dubstep, Blake’s idiosyncratic oeuvre is demeaned and insufficiently described by that narrow classification, for buildups leading to a drop are rare, silence is frequent, and the songs do not lend themselves to clubs. The two characteristics he does share with dubstep are massive, sub-aural bass and stuttering rhythms, but these are mixed with vocals that are often layered into harmonization that recalls classical voice-leading with an R&B influence.
The washed-out, fuzzy image of Blake that adorns his eponymous debut album is a perfect visual representation of his music. Subtle gradations of gray are the only colors present in his palette; as a result the whole album seems faded, melancholy, and made for listening to alone on headphones. It seems to exist only in your skull, throbbing and pulsing like some obsessive thought. However, this lonely quality does not mean that it cannot grow and overwhelm you. “Wilhelm Scream” focuses on a few short phrases, repeating over and over again, slowly surging into a glowing, anesthetizing nimbus. It’s a prime example of the sense of inevitable destination present in the best of Blake’s songs. Lyrics are sparse (“I Never Learnt to Share” consists of two lines: “My brother and my sister don’t care for me/but I don’t blame them”) but they are emotional and enigmatic in their terseness, and fit a culture where attention spans are short and thoughts are communicated in tweets. And not all the songs are withdrawn: “Lindisfarne II” (featuring an acoustic guitar! albeit distorted) and “Measurements” are soulful and uplifting, at least for Blake. Unfortunately, despite most of the album being magnificent, the remainder is weak. “Tep and the Logic” is incomprehensible, “I Mind” consists of disparate parts that don’t mesh, and “Give Me My Month” is a not so successful attempt at a ballad.
Amazingly enough, Blake is a powerful live performer as well. You wouldn’t expect his music to translate, but at Pitchfork last year the audience was enthralled and held silent by his presence.