God, is it February already? Either the years are getting shorter, or my faculties for temporal processing became mangled during the jabbering chaos of the New Year. I swear I’ve been writing a review of Harry Potter for about seven months, with nary a paragraph to show for it, and now I’m about to review an album which I won’t listen to for another three days. Have I finally become unstuck?
Probably, because it doesn’t seem like it’s been almost four years since the summer that Benga & Skream’s ‘Night’ brought dubstep wobbling and stomping into the mainstream and that dark winter that saw the release of Burial’s majestic second album, Untrue. Since then you can’t go to the shops anymore without being overwhelmed by the relentless whomp whomp whomp of a devastating soundboy riddim, to the extent that BBC news 24 now employs dubstep for their theme music. Hell, dubstep is old now. Digital Mystikz are so ancient they can barely twiddle their own knobs due to arthritis. What we need… is a prefix.
Enter James Blake, and what has been somewhat lazily called the post-dubstep movement. The internet being what it is, stars can now rise and fall in the time it takes a DJ to record their first bedroom mix-tape, which meant that Blake, with barely enough tracks released to constitute an ep, was named as one of the Artists To Watch in 2011 by the BBC, amongst many others. I can see why. His self-titled debut is a disquieting, sometimes beautiful effort. Whilst Burial’s music evokes scenes of dim-lit subways and hooded spirits haunting empty alleys, Blake delivers a much more personal but no less ghostly vision. His songs are fragile, fine wisps of smoke with often only the barest hint of a beat.
Blake first achieved popular appeal late last year with his cover of Feist’s Limit To Your Love, which appears midway through the album. It stands out rather tellingly as the most media-friendly track and also the least-nuanced. The clutch of songs preceding it are almost crushing in their melancholy, lending a sense of gentle despair which I think is sorely lacking from modern pop music. I’ve read hereabouts that it is a difficult listen, which I don’t really understand. Mournful lyrics and spare electronic bleeps sound like a warm bath to me compared to, say, Alec Empire. The sparseness can be jarring and almost challenging though, and the ambiguity of the vocals, garbled as they are by effects, means that you concentrate much more on the tone rather than the lyrics. Plus he can sometimes sound a bit like a robot cranking, which I suppose is not a good thing.
Hmm, yes. But is there anything here that we haven’t heard before? Probably not, but it is rare that something like this is given such mainstream attention. I don’t particularly understand the post-dubstep tag, and I’m sure Blake would much prefer to be described not by a clumsy genre but as an individual. employing his actual name is one signifier, as opposed to dubbing himself something like DJ JAMblak. I can’t imagine him dropping sick beats to screwed up faces at five in the morning in an Ancoats warehouse either, it wouldn’t even make very good come-down music. Instead what James Blake and his like, particularly Jamie Woon, have done is follow Burial’s footsteps by creating a musical form which can exist artistically independent from the scene from which it sprung, and as an example of miserablist electronica I can’t think of much better.
FINAL VERDICT: Yeah, it’s pretty good. Two Stars.