“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 as I would like to, in vivid Technicolor. Some of it is grayed out... 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,” James Blake says in an interview with a Chicago-based online music magazine Pitchfork.
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The transition from black-and-white to color is also evident from the cover of the 27-year-old’s new album, his third, which was released in early May – “The Colour in Anything.” To be honest, and no offense intended here, I wasn’t that taken with the cover art. At first glance, it looks like it came from a generic American folk album rather than a terrific 2016 album by one of the past decade’s most exciting and innovative artists in pop and electronic music. But as old-fashioned as it may seem, it still somehow suits the album just right.
Above and below are a gloomy, cloudy sky, and parched land with two bare trees, in myriad shades of gray. Two figures, also gray – one in a long coat, with hair swept to the side (Blake himself), and the other a naked woman lying upside down on the tree branches, becoming one with the tree, represent the romantic spirit that guides the album. And in the background, some blotches of color: a green pasture and the beginnings of a golden dawn.
Blake has maintained radio silence since his last album, “Overgrown,” from 2013, except for one EP he released on his privately owned label, 1-800 Dinosaur. “Radio Silence” is the title of the first track on his new album. Over the last few years, every once in a while he would let a snippet of info trickle into the press, and he set fans’ mouths watering when he announced upcoming collaborations with Kanye West, Bon Iver and Connan Mockasin, among others. In the end, the album featured two collaborations in a handful of songs (four of the 17 tracks on the more than 75-minute album). Two were written with soul R&B singer Frank Ocean and two with folk singer Justin Vernon, the soloistwith and brains behind Bon Iver, who also appears on the song “I Need a Forest Fire.” Although many of the touted collaborations didn’t come to fruition, it’s still apparent that Blake is much more open to creating music with others than he was in the past. One person who can attest to this is none other than Beyoncé, who got Blake involved in two songs on her new album “Lemonade” – quite an achievement for the British club kid who surprised the underground music world when he came out with his first album in 2011 and showed himself to be a sensitive artist and singer.
Blake says that the work with Ocean, one of the most admired R&B artists of recent years, left its mark on the entire album. Their collaboration continued with Blake becoming very involved in writing some of the songs on Ocean’s next album. But despite all this – despite the huge influence that black music has had on Blake (tributes to giants of soul like Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers are hidden amid the tracks on the new album); despite the collaborations with leading hip-hop artists (Ocean and Beyoncé); despite his affinity for dubstep, the music from which he arose, for the British black music culture; and above all – despite Blake’s very distinctive, black-sounding voice, it’s hard to define his music as hip-hop or even as soul. And his uniqueness doesn’t end with his voice. Blake is a supreme talent, the kind of complete package that comes along once in a generation. A gifted writer, super-producer, and heartrending soul singer. And his new album leaves no doubt about it.
To tell the truth, on first listen, the album is challenging. Even in the world of contemporary hip-hop, in which albums that last more than an hour have become something of an industry standard, the length of “The Colour in Anything” is unusual, and the way the songs are written don’t offer any shortcuts. Blake uses a pop song structure that consists of verses and choruses but you need to listen closely to understand this. He often breaks up the melodies and divides the songs into segments, such as an intro that’s seemingly unrelated to the song itself. This sort of thing happens on two of the album’s most beautiful tracks, “My Willing Heart” and “Choose Me,” which are among the most moving songs of the last few years, and include heart-wrenching cries by Blake above synthesizer and organ arpeggios. The insertion of the Joni Mitchell-esque piano ballad of the title track, after 52 minutes of music, also doesn’t help much on first listen, as it seems to signal a premature end to the album, which then continues for another four (splendid) songs after this high point. But patience and careful attention are rewarded many times over already by the second listen.
This is an album to fall in love with, one that reveals more layers with each listen. It’s tempting to say that the album’s pretensions got the best of it to some degree, or that it’s just overly long, but after dozens of listens, I can’t point to any one song that should have been left out in order to tighten it, for the simple reason that each has its own special charm, makes its way into your heart and refuses to leave. Personally, though, I might have done without “Two Men Down,” the longest track on the album (six minutes), with its relatively simplistic melody and super-smooth production. To my taste, it’s a little bland compared to the rest of the songs, but someone who relates more to this genre might well feel very differently.
What’s so amazing about Blake is his ability to write impeccable songs, perform them flawlessly and give each one its own particular spark that sets it apart from the other songs while simultaneously weaving them all together perfectly to form a coherent album that has a distinctive sound and statement to make. Such sparks can be heard, for instance with the organ that plays in your right ear throughout “Put That Away and Talk to Me,” where Blake uses Auto-Tune to such superb effect that Kanye West could only dream of emulating. Or with the gentle but piercing clap that appears on the off-beat in “Noise Above Our Heads,” a track reminiscent of Blake’s early productions on the Hessle Audio label. One could keep going like this with each song on the album.
It’s hard to talk about this album in relation to its predecessors, which were both excellent too. Though in the interview, Blake talks about this one coming from a happier place emotionally, that’s not so strongly felt in the music. Without getting too much into psychological analyses, when compared to his earlier albums, you do hear that Blake is smarter and more mature here in terms of ambitiousness and songwriting. You do hear that the production has been refined, and the minimalism is very finely calibrated. And that’s plenty. As for the new color that he’s discovered in life – the abundance of piano ballads on the album seems to signal that Blake is moving instead toward the black-and-white of the piano keyboard. Who knows – maybe his next album will really highlight the two instruments with which he truly excels – his voice and the piano. After having falling in love with this album, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.