MANILA, Philippines – We’re only halfway into 2016, but it’s safe to already claim it: what a great year it has been for music.
In the first few months of 2016 alone, we’ve been graced by industry giants who already seem to be shoo-in nominees for the next awards season: Kanye West’s much-anticipated “The Life of Pablo,” Beyoncé’s surprise visual album “Lemonade,” and last week’s freshest drop — Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” mixtape. With each artist telling his or her own story, all are fighting for the top of the charts, even if they remain friends IRL and in the studio. They’ve all collaborated in one form or another, or simply given each other support. But one thing they do have in common is a connection to electronic producer and singer-songwriter James Blake. The Brit is a sought-after collaborator in the music industry, very much like Frank Ocean, who also happens to have worked on Blake’s new album. From being summoned by Beyoncé to work on a track (Forward) for “Lemonade,” to heavily influencing the musical arrangement on “The Life of Pablo,” to co-producing one of the most pleasantly surprising mixtapes to have surfaced in a long time, he seems to keep A-list company; surprising, perhaps, for someone who has only been making music for six years. But it seems that James Blake’s big-name friends are hardly what make him so special.
“Just go listen to his music, and say, ‘Hey, that’s Kanye’s favorite artist,’” West said in a radio interview back in 2013 when asked about Blake. That was also the year when James released his second album entitled “Overgrown,” which won the Mercury Prize (given to the best album of the year in UK and Ireland), beating out David Bowie’s “The Next Day” and Arctic Monkeys’ “AM.” It’s one thing to be praised to the rafters and respected by fellow artists, and another to be critically acclaimed. James Blake has achieved both through hard work and a whole lot of experimentation.
A lot has changed since his dub step-influenced EPs back in 2010 started circulating the club scene. By the time he released his self-titled debut album in 2011, he started incorporating more traditional sounds, bringing in a piano and putting his piercing vocals at the fore, highlighting his gospel and R&B influences. But it was in 2013 that Blake really brought the two styles together: electronic meets ballad, a kind of sound that is hauntingly impressionistic at first, only because of the unlikely juxtaposition. But his art proves to have substance despite the shiny packaging as proven by his hit single Retrograde. Three years later, he fully showcased mastery of this kind of storytelling with “The Colour in Anything,” his third album which dropped earlier this month.
The overwhelming 76-minute album with 17 songs is a statement on its own, but what became even clearer was Blake’s shifting artistic direction; it might not be for everyone. The layers upon layers of sound — a concoction of singing, instruments, and some good old reverb — simply demands for everyone to take notice, and perhaps to pick a side: do you keep on listening or do you go ahead and skip to the next track?
The album reveals the real art behind James Blake’s music: a minimalist idea amidst maximalist production. “The Colour in Anything” is simply an album about love in all its pained honesty — but the kind that can sometimes only be expressed with a groan in tracks like Choose Me and with drum sequences and airy synths on Radio Silence and Love Me In Whatever Way. The contribution of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on two tracks (I Need a Forest Fire and Meet You In The Maze) perfectly complements Blake’s unique storytelling. It makes you feel things without telling you what to feel, kind of like that friend who sticks around with a pack of tissue as you try to process what you’re going through. I’d like to believe his album isn’t depressing, but rather comforting if only because it simply makes you deal with what you have to. In the closing track, Meet You In The Maze, James Blake strips down to a cappella and declares, “Music isn’t everything.” His voice is layered multiple times, creating a sort of distorted choir effect as though to remind us over and over again that “it’s me who makes the peace in me.” He creates music that encourages introspection more than anything, which is refreshing in an industry that tries to resonate with people by means of expressing their feelings for them.
James Blake’s music might not be tailor-made for the radio and that’s perfectly okay. It’s there when we need it and its relevance to our lives is never dependent on how well it places on today’s pop charts. His technical skills and artistic vision make for a unique experience that is for the most part polarizing, but truly leaves a lasting impression.