In late 2010, David Bevan wrote an article for Pitchfork about what he identifies as a new “musical vocabulary“ emerging “centered around the way vocals are being manipulated to create moods and atmospheres defined by their amorphous, often spectral nature.” Beginning with the “dodgier ends of dub” and traversing a “class of genres and micro-genres,” Bevan discusses the music of Burial, Pariah, Mount Kimbie, Bon Iver, Kingdom, Four Tet, Balam Acab, and others and their inter-related approaches to electronic vocal treatments in order to trace a lineage behind the musical trend he describes. Yet as Bevan only hints, the clearest articulation of the trend lies elsewhere in the work of a younger less prolific musician that in many ways stands on the shoulders of these artists, embodying a particularly compelling reduction of what came before him.
It was both timely and fitting that Bevan rooted his discussion around London‘s James Blake, the youngest, most planetary, and polarizing artist of them all. All three of the EP’s Blake released in 2010 comprise, in some variation or another, an influenced yet unique approach to dub-rooted song structures (the “nicer” end of dubstep, not the “massive tear-out wobble end” as Blake puts it) built around the vox. The first, The Bells Sketch, is three tracks of grinding dub-ephemeral that treats vocals as lyricless instruments; CMYK manipulates R&B samples; and Klavierwerke, his third of the year, chops, processes, and sequences his own vocals he then frames spaciously in arrangement, always just below the glimmering surface of the mix. If the structural impression of Klavierwerke is a glass house, his vocals are the bare support frames and the lagging sub-beat their grounding foundation. The beat is there to to support the vocals, not the other way around.
As much as he has already contributed to this emerging vocal-centric cousin of dub, Blake‘s striking self titled debut album suggests he’s only getting started. James Blake is an impressively mature album of his most revealing music yet. Revealing, in that we hear James Blake the singer, not the vocal sampler, James Blake the artist, not the producer. He is still both those things, but amidst an overwhelming surge of media attention and surely the pressure that accompanies it, Blake debuts a fully rounded self sufficient artist with a voice that can sing.
Though it sounds completely natural, like he should have been singing all along, this is the first we’ve heard Blake’s voice in full melodic phrase albeit always processed and manipulated for effect. In dubbed-over counterpoint, he indulgently harmonizes with himself, coiling and intertwining layers of phrases around pre-recorded tracks to conjure an entire chorus out of his own company. And he uses this effect not in and of itself, but to build the narratives in his songs. In the meditative “I Never Learnt To Share”, he confides a cold realization and resolution: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/but I don’t blame them/but I don’t blame them,” cycling through a series of variations on the same phrase he cannot seem to overcome. Though his stark and robotic voice initially suggests indifference, Blake creates unsettled tension by layering synthesizer warbles and bass pulsations that build to a violent and stormy apex. The dissonance dissolves when Blake finds solace in the sonic mirrors of his reclusive digital world where he shares his song with equally pensive soldiers of himself. Self-deprecation is reciprocal: his solace is the source of his calamity.
Blake’s vocally carried narratives are vulnerable, lonely, and hauntingly beautiful, and often, they are all three at once. He sings through–and even relishes–the breaking points in his voice, then leaves vast and uncertain cavernous spaces between phrases where minimalistic production seeps through with pointillistic affect. Sometimes the sounds he sets in those spaces are “noises” he has captured and amplified to make musically functional, like the muffled and woody clunk that sounds like a miked piano pedal in his cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love.” Other times, the sounds he creates are otherworldly, like the probing tunnel effect that echoes an imagined recession: “I don’t know about my dreamin’ anymore/all that I know is/ I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’/might as well fall in.” “Lindesfarne I” (which is the name of a tidal island on the Northern coast of England) attempts neither. Instead, for periods of nearly ten seconds, harmonized melodyne vocals decay into stretches of pristine silence, still and unaltered. When surrounded by these woods, silence isn’t silent at all.
Though its immaculate surface is what invites you in, the process of listening to James Blake is not a surficial affair. Like when we gaze out at uncommonly calm, smooth, and dark bodies of water, the sight itself is something to behold, but the real wonder arises from what you cannot see. For those who dream beyond opaque, James Blake’s ghost voices whisper stories of what lies deep below.[audio:http://potholesinmyblog.flywheelsites.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/06-James-Blake-Limit-To-Your-Love.mp3|titles=James Blake – Limit To Your Love]