The Colour In Anything sounds like that exact moment when you witness a loved one realizing their full potential. So don’t call it a comeback; this is the sound of eventual self-discovery.
Over the course of 76 minutes, James Blake dives in and fully explores the sparkling electro-acapella sound world he willed into existence with his 2011 debut. That album unfolded vertically, stacking the impact of its sharp minimalism for maximum impact. It was a clarion call for a new direction in beat music, boldly incorporating the human voice in a way that had mostly disappeared from cutting edge electronic genres. His superhuman croon was chopped, stretched, twisted, looped, topping itself every track with a new magic trick. Even better, the songs had substance; they would sound just as catchy on traditional instruments, if not nearly as memorable.
Despite my hyperbolic praise for his self-titled debut, I was left cold by the followup, Overgrown. It confirmed my at-the-time important suspicions: he was moving away from innovative production and vocal manipulation toward more standard pop song structures. He was doing a digital take on blue-eyed soul, which fit his gorgeous voice like a glove. But it just wasn’t what I was hoping for from the young artist.
I returned to it last winter on a whim and found myself enjoying it entirely for what it is: a gelid pack of soulful dub ballads, more akin to high school favorites like Massive Attack and Björk than the avant-dubstep scene that Blake arose from. A few moments feature Aphex-style techno spastics, but it is otherwise a soul album. It’s a good soul album.
The funny thing is, despite mounting a giant leap into the future while reminding me of the bold step of the debut, this new album is also soul music at heart.
Here’s the introduction song, Radio Silence.
Opening with a wordless coo, heavy piano chords, and the repeated line, “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me,” James Blake emerges from nebulous watercolors to deliver a sermon weighted by the years of adult life that have passed since his stratospheric rise at the tender age of 21. In a lot of ways, it’s his reintroduction to the world.
The Colour In Anything is expansive yet minimal, packed with moments of deafening silence, erupting in extraordinary detail. The lengthy running time allows Blake to stretch out each of his impulses, indulging in pure vocal explorations and extended instrumental passages alike. Longtime fans, familiar with his groundbreaking CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs on classic dance label R&S, will recognize that iridescent blue glow all over the production techniques. It’s been buried for years, but the impulse returned stronger than ever. The cumulative effect leaves me gobsmacked, running through a sensory juggernaut.
This is the first time that Blake has collaborated extensively with other artists, including Frank Ocean on writing and production duties. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon carries his signature high-register voice in a perfectly sympathetic dance with Blake’s tenor vocals on mid-album highlight I Need A Forest Fire. Since both artists are well known for manipulating their unique voices, it’s one of those eureka moments where you wonder why they haven’t crossed paths since the one-off single Fall Creek Boys Choir in 2011. It’s also emblematic of the way the entire album is put together: a series of high contrast moments of striking sincerity and nuanced bombast that elicits surprise despite its lack of truly new elements. James Blake has reformulated his signature dish, but he’s using the same ingredients he’s worked with all along.
The major difference this time around is that what once felt embryonic has now come fully into its own. Like the papier-mâché butterflies in the above video, Blake has finally emerged from an artistic cocoon with the preternatural ability to fly. The album might be too long for some, and it might feel too similar for those who weren’t feeling his music before. To my ears, it’s the culmination of all I enjoyed from his earliest instrumental singles onward, including everything I thought I disliked about his sophomore release. This is an extraordinary marriage of human voice and electronic production that rivals the profundity of Björk’s groundbreaking Medúlla, released over 12 years ago. If that comparison doesn’t do it justice, I don’t know what will.
As with every surprise release lately, the album is out only digitally for now. You can preorder the vinyl 2lp set on Bleep. It drops July 15th.
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