I first saw James Blake at First Ave in Minneapolis (s/o to the coolest venue/ coolest city) in 2013. He performed his classics from Overgrown: Retrograde, Life Round Here, Limit To Your Love — among others. That concert was so special to me for many reasons but mostly because it was the first time I’d ever felt sexually attracted to someone playing the piano, like that dude can sing into a piano, make it breathe. It was awesome. It was also the first time I’d heard an artist do a live reverb playback (you can see an example of this in his song The Wilhelm Scream here), and it changed how I perceived what the relationship between an audience and artist should be. I’m gunna need you guys to be completely silent, he told the crowd, and it was one of the most intimate experience I’d ever had at the concert: having the audience create a sound, a feeling, a reverb, with the artist himself.
The album he performed while touring in 2013 was Overgrown, which inspired the likes of Kanye West and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver/The Shouting Matches/Volcano Choir. Now — in 2016, he’s released his newest album, The Colour in Anything (no, he won’t let us forget that he is British & yes, he would pick an album title with a word that adds a letter based on geographic location – Colour – that makes sure we can’t either).
In an article with Pitchfork, Blake explained the shifts he personally saw in the creation of his new album:
You have a reputation for making melancholy music. Were you trying to get away from that this time?
I listened to my old music and I really didn’t sound like a happy person. It was surprising to find out that I had been fairly unhappy that whole time, and people close to me may not have noticed. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy anything, but those first four years of my career—I’m not sure I remember as much of it that I would like to, in vivid technicolor. Some of it is grayed out. I realized that [when it comes to making music], it wasn’t important whether I was happy or sad—it’s about sensitivity and your reaction to the world. I wouldn’t want to be one of those artists that keeps themselves in a perpetual cycle of anxiety and depression just to extract music from that.
The reporter sympathized with him and replied, “it’s a toxic way to live,” Blake responded with: “Totally. With my first two records, as much as I see music I’m very proud of, I also see a headspace I don’t want to be in anymore. I’m happy to be sitting out here really enjoying it. It’s all in color.”
His first single, I Need A Forest Fire, features Justin Vernon (remember when they did Fall Creek Boys Choir? Back at it again with the moody collars // I’d expect nothing less from the two). It’s one of my favorites off of his album: it carries a hopeful melody and strong vocals from Vernon.
The Colour in Anything isn’t wildly different from his past albums, but its variation in style between songs should be noted. With it’s similarly electronic, melancholic and poetic sound, the album begins with the song Radio Silence, which starts and ends in a ghostly whisper which fades into the following song, Points, which focuses heavily on vocals and has an electric spin in the middle that repeats the same line over and over again. The sound texture in Points is amazing, using audio mixes of a screaming siren and wind gushes that slowly build throughout the song and create a dramatic ending where he finishes the song with “sadly you’re no longer her”. His song f.o.r.e.v.e.r. is slower, melodic and piano-based. The lyrics are poignant and soulful. I love the idea of him “ghosting the streets” – it seems to capture the essence of loneliness and the questioning of relationship with his lines:
Don’t use the word, “Forever”
We live too long to be so loved
People change and I can be tethered
We think we are the only ones
You can’t walk the streets a ghost anymore
His song Put That Away And Talk To Me reminds me a lot of a song Erykah Badu recently released, Phone Down, which pulls from parts of Drake’s Hotline Bling hit. In Blake’s song, a voice speaking the words can you tell me about the early days creates a sense of technology obsession/asphyxiation/anxiety that he comments upon in the chorus. Although most of his sound is melancholic and solemn, this particular song resonated with more of a commanding and uneasy and agitated and uneasy feeling for me. Timeless sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie with its repetitive ringing sounds, clicks, and static underlying background noise. Always and Noise Above Our Heads are two of the more upbeat songs on the album. The album title song, The Colour in Anything, is a ballad that showcases Blake’s incredible range.
The major differences I found throughout the album The Colour in Anything in contrast to Overgrown were in the sound mixing. While he still uses reverb and sparse, repetitive lyrics, there’s more hope in this album: especially in the last song on the album, Meet You In the Maze. He sings “music can be everything/… all those songs have came before you/ they were once awaiting”. The song is almost entirely just his voice, which creates an intensity in the words he sings. It’s such a beautiful concept, too, that these songs were waiting inside him to come out full force (with the help of writing from Frank Ocean & advice from/collaborating with Justin Vernon).
James Blake will be on tour this year in the UK, Japan, Australia and Germany (among several other stops) and will conclude his tour at the Eaux Claire Music Festival in August in Eaux Claires, Wisconsin.