On the very first track on Overgrown, James Blake sings something fairly humble. “I don’t wanna be a star, but a stone on the shore.” I feel bad for him in this moment, because he’s a little too far past that now. Two years ago, Blake released his self-titled debut, a stunning and understated study on the human voice in relation to electronic music. It was a natural progression of the world Blake lives in, taking cues from his peers (specifically Four Tet and Burial), who made names for themselves doing the same thing. Say what you will about the differences between dubstep in America vs. that from abroad, but one of the most telling things about the divide is how each handles the voice. James Blake has always treated it as an element, on the same level of any other piece of his music. This came through constantly on the debut, but listening to Overgrown, it’s incredibly clear that he has outgrown that belief. Here, his voice at the forefront, and though it sounds weak at times, there is never a moment where it wavers, and he knows just when to let it burst. This is best demonstrated on “Retrograde”, the album’s first single, which chooses the chorus to do just that: “Suddenly I’m hit!” he yelps as the track erupts. His voice is still full of that signature crackle, but it stands strong, though it comes off as very cold.
The telling thing about Overgrown is how much he relies on his (seemingly) unaltered voice to do the storytelling. Where the first album was sparsely filled with simplistic lines, here his songwriting elevates everything to a level where that manipulation seems superfluous. What is immediately noticeable is the fact that this album makes the last look like a rough sketch. The aforementioned sparseness is traded for sheer size, with each track feeling more full than the last one. It’s a welcome change, and it acts as a pseudo-progress-report for how Blake is coming along as a producer, nevermind his songwriting. On top of that, it feels clear that he’s become somewhat willing to share the experiencw with others around him: one of the most obviously altered tracks on the record is “Digital Lion”, a track produced not by Blake, but by master-produced Brian Eno, whose fingerprints are all over the track. Even RZA gets in on the action, providing solid vocals for “Take a Fall For Me” near the beginning of the album, despite on occasion feeling like he’s fighting the urge to fake a British accent.
Overall, one of the best things about Overgrown is that it feels like Blake is itching to continue a trend he started on his first album. He’s a maudlin and reserved man who doesn’t seem to enjoy being interviewed about his work, but he’s churning out some of the most soulful music of the last 10 years. You could describe it as neo-soul, but it’s something more than that, really. In short, this album is the work of someone who wants to forge a new path for himself, letting his music express the emotions he finds himself unable to really express on his own. It’s a brave direction for someone as young as Blake (as of this writing, he’s only 24), and someone who is under as much constant artistic scrutiny.
If you’re like me, you like to categorize albums into different categories. Some albums are designated as “workout albums” or “cleaning the house albums”, or “lovemaking albums” or “playing video games albums”. Listening to Overgrown late at night, it’s obvious that the album is one of the best albums possible for dinner parties, drinking whiskey at 3am, and loneliness. It is an album that embodies a very specific mood, and it’s interesting to feel how that changes the mood I’m in when pressed up against it. Time will tell if James Blake improves upon the formula he’s already perfected, but even if he only built on this, rather than forging a path forward, I would gladly listen to every single album he put out.