When I first saw the coldness and the stark experience of loneliness on the cover art of James Blake's sophomore LP, Overgrown, I knew there was going to be something different about this record. That use of vastness, of separation, isn't new territory for Blake. He's often explored feelings of alienation and self-segregation in his lyrics. However, I think the artist is aware that most of the attention directed at his debut, once-in-a-lifetime, LP was based around his unique electronic manipulation, amazing sense of spaciousness, and floor-shaking bass energy. I always loved his voice simply because it was different. He has a very unique tonality; it's unlike any voice I've heard before. It's one of those voices that, no matter where you are at the time, when you hear it, you know who it is within five seconds. Like Tom Waits (hell no, I'm not comparing them—so don't even go there in your head) I know it's Blake when I hear him.
The title, Overgrown, infers maturing or some kind of growth (duh). I wonder if this isn't a response to the speedy trajectory of his career leading up to, and following his debut. I do know Blake wanted to challenge himself and his vocal abilities for this album. He apparently got "sick of" of all the digital trickery and wanted to focus on the "beauty" in his voice. I thought that was a bold thing to say (read it in an interview in FILTER magazine), but he didn't come off as conceded or cocky. He just wants to express himself more intuitively. He sounds like he's pushing himself at the perfect pace. Overgrown is a fantastic sophomore record, it's a departure from the first musically and sonically. It isn't out of control to make a statement or sell anything "new" about the artist. It's gorgeous, and to be brutally honest, it took me a couple of spins to get it. This album sounds like Blake is trying to find peace of mind in the midst of a world that is based on constant information overload. I felt that desire, that yearning for self discovery, during the opening and title track. Blake talks of being a "stone on the shore" and how "time passes in a constant state", while this light wavering synth weaves in and out of his fading voice. It's spacey, but there is also an uber modern folk edge to it that I'm having difficulty deconstructing and describing.
It's almost as if Joni Mitchell (Court and Spark), James Blake, Shlohmo, and Portishead got together and made a folk record! Oh, but there's just one singer, he's male, and he plays piano/keyboards. Seriously though, Overgrown is vast, open, and intimate. It's also organic. That's important believe it or not, having somebody so steadily accomplished in the electronic music scene (especially in the underground) cross over, and do it with grace and style. This album would be equally at home on NPR's All Things Considered, and Radio 1. Plus, he proves he can still bring the electro-funky nastiness on "Life Round Here," and even dips into hip-hop alongside the always rippin' it RZA on "Take a Fall For Me". The collaboration drips with soul, RZA's sharp and intense lyrical flow framed in Blake's sonic palette. It works so well it's become one of those tracks I always play twice when it comes on. It gets my head bobbin'.
I've been enjoying Overgrown on vinyl immensely. The sound seems a bit sparse at first, but again Blake proves he's almost mastered the art of spatial relationships within the recorded soundstage. While the music isn't overly complex, it isn't necessarily sparse. It's minimal, and there is a difference. Minimal art can retain the same intensity in presentation that complicated art can. And hey, not all complicated art is good! Far from it actually. One of the coolest things about the record is its ability to express complex emotions plainly, and with clean lines. Blake's grown exponentially in the last few years as an artist, and I can't wait to hear what he'll do next. Don't miss this one!
I highly recommend it