After his featured appearances on Beyonce’s Lemonade, James Blake’s stock has never been higher. And yet the road that led him to where he is today wasn’t without its obstacles. Blake, a singer-songwriter who works with a dance producer’s toolbox, has weathered storms of self-doubt since the release of his second album Overgrown in 2013. He resolved to correct his stubbornly independent approach to songcraft by co-writing two compositions with Frank Ocean and shacking up for a time at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu. There, the super-producer helped Blake sculpt his third LP The Colour in Anything. The result is a quietly ambitious record: one that’s expansive without being bloated.
He no longer has any qualms about displaying his idiosyncrasies on record, and that’s a wonderful thing
The London-born Blake is much changed since we last encountered him. Opening cut ‘Radio Silence’ – notable for its enveloping synth breakers, boiling over with trap drum flotsam – immediately emphasises the extent to which Blake has developed as a singer. His impassioned cries of, “I don’t know how you feel” come as a shock to those who are familiar with his output. Blake’s default mode of singing was hitherto marked by a subdued sincerity. From the outset of Colour, though, his vocals are unfettered by prudence or decorum. “I wanted to open up and be more outgoing,” Blake recently told The Guardian. He no longer has any qualms about displaying his idiosyncrasies on record, and that’s a wonderful thing.
‘Modern Soul,’ the album’s lead single, is the premier standout on an LP wall-to-wall with highlights. “I know a crossroads when I see them,” Blake sings, corralling listeners with the sheer force of his words. The piano blubbers out a chord progression that harks back to the Flamingos’ immortal hit ‘I Only Have Eyes for You.’ One of these chords recurrently stumbles onto the soundscape, out of turn and out of time, oddly captivating in its own drunken way.
The immense swaths of silence that draped Blake’s first two albums are curtailed on Colour. There’s an unmistakable warmth to these songs, like that of a hearth-fire. ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’ sends licks of flame up the listener’s spine in the form of stifling synth chords, while ‘Choose Me’ sees Blake stoking the embers of his unquenched desire with plosive percussion. A lovely string arrangement emerges at the end of the otherwise lugubrious ‘Points,’ akin to a burst of sunshine diffusing a welter of dark clouds. While the lyrical imagery of songs like the Bon Iver collaboration ‘I Need a Forest Fire’ (“Burn me like cedar”) and ‘My Willing Heart’ (“Gathered round the television’s fire”) add to the album’s phosphorescent quality.
Blake has a tendency to mould and shape his voice mercilessly, treating it like like a lump of clay. Pitching the vocals up and down without hesitation, mangling them with autotune, he creates the impression of a plurality of voices. Is the helium-toned Blake we hear on ‘Two Men Down’ and ‘Always’ the same as the heavily-processed Blake we hear on ‘Put That Away and Talk to Me’? It’s hard to tell. What’s clear is that his improved dynamic sensibility has served to expand his emotional palette.
The Colour in Anything is a work of restless invention, standing as Blake’s most creative collection to date. His first two albums are mere sketches of what’s on exhibit here: this is James Blake fully-formed. “Music can’t be everything,” he croons on ‘Meet You in the Maze,’ the last song on the record. But when it scales its most dizzying peaks, Colour comes startlingly close to convincing you that music is, indeed, everything.