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Artist: James Blake

Album: James Blake

Label: Universal Republic

Review date: Feb. 7, 2011

James Blake’s debut album will now exist only in relation to its expectations – BBC polls, “saviour of blubstep,” the next Jamie Lidell, or rather cattily, the latest Jamiroquai. There’s a little bit of truth in both the Lidell and Jamiroquai comments (sadly), and I was never sure whether blubstep needed saving (it kind of needs to exist first), and the BBC poll thing seems almost a misnomer, except that it flags just how much people now care about James Blake – or his stylist, depending on how you look at this whole storm-in-a-teacup.

Truth first: James Blake is not a great record. It is a good record, and maybe even a slightly provocative one, in that an album this spare, minimal, and myopic shouldn’t, by rights, be stirring the pot so much. This minimalism feels like its saving grace, at times, at least if you want to engage with James Blake on an intellectual level – a kind of wowing, “how little is he actually doing!” level, which could make him the Morton Feldman of dubstep, if you really want to stretch comparison to breaking point. But when half of the songs feel flimsy, you’re reminded that minimalism only works when it has incredibly sturdy, rigorous architecture.

James Blake is not always this way. With “The Wilhelm Scream” and the two parts of “Lindesfarne,” Blake essays a kind of astral balladry, the modern equivalent of Arthur Russell circa World Of Echo, or a hard-drive update of Nico’s The Marble Index. As with both of those albums, most of these songs feel centerless, as though Blake has built arrangements around a fully-fledged R&B or pop song and then pulled the metal rods out of the legs. The cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” reimagines the original’s swooning soul as a baleful threnody, with heavy bass drops suddenly emptying the bowels of the song out onto the floor.

By the closing “Measurements,” though, you’re left exhausted by the album’s monochromatic palette, and tired of the predictability of Blake’s vocal arrangements (Auto-Tune, octave, counterpoint, repeat). To be fair, Blake’s vocals can be gorgeous – nonchalant, harrowed, or dissolute, you often expect his words to expire immediately after they leave his mouth, like a soul-reverent take on Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. But one can’t help but suspect James Blake may have been better served either with another few years’ maturation, or with an attempt to crosswire Blake’s more floor-friendly cuts, like “CMYK” or his more overtly dubstep productions, with these lost-boy ballads.

Actually, that’s a much tougher challenge, isn’t it? To bring the dancefloor in consort with the song and the overarching structure of the album. In that context, James Blake almost feels like a cop-out – or, perhaps more generously considered, a path not travelled. As it stands it’s a good record that’s not so much “hesitant” – not doing very much is not necessarily hesitation – as slightly underbaked. And ultimately, I can’t help feeling I’d like James Blake a bit more, if I liked James Blake a lot less.

By Jon Dale

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