In his self-titled debut album of 2011, English musician James Blake, then 23, delivered his version of A case of you, a beautiful song by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell reportedly wrote the song, from his 1971 album Blue, after his relationship with singer Graham Nash ended. Blake’s version, accompanied by a piano and not much else, may not be as moving as Mitchell’s, but it is surprisingly tender.
This is all the more surprising given that Blake is known as an electronic musician who has explored many genres – folk rock, however, is not predominant among them.
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Yet that’s the kind of versatility we’ve come to expect from Blake. In 2019, he won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance for The king is dead, a song he co-wrote with several artists, including rapper Kendrick Lamar and Pulitzer Prize-winning Jay Rock. Blake, who is gifted with a baritone, doesn’t sing much on it but his edgy electronic style is clearly evident.
In fact, Blake has been prolific in his hip hop collaborations. Besides Lamar, he has worked with rappers such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Frank Ocean and others.
However, you cannot enclose it in a category. His music is complex and defies genres. The melodic arrangements of his pieces are often suddenly disturbed by, for example, the use of nervous voices assisted by special effects or abrupt changes in rhythms or harmonies.
Blake’s work can be confusing and, on occasion, difficult to access. But even that is not an appropriate description.
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Earlier this month he released his latest and fifth full album, Friends who break your heart. With collaborations with singers such as SZA, slowthai and JID, the album could have been a simple foray into hip hop, but it isn’t.
Yet it is one of Blake’s most accessible albums. His voice, for the most part, has not been treated with special effects, and some of the songs he sings are so tender and intimate that it is easy to forget that he is truly an electronic musician with early beginnings. in electronic dance music (EDM) and dubstep, electronic music originating in London and characterized by minimalism and deep bass.
In songs like Say what you want, his rich baritone is in full force against a non-intrusive synth-created soundscape as he sings: I look good at the magic hour / In the right light with the right amount of power / And I’m okay with the life of the sunflower / And I’m okay with the life of a rain of meteors. In another track, Nights of the lost angels, it looks like he’s singing a delicate hymn.
A hallmark of Blake’s past albums has been an overall tinge of sadness. Her voice and her arrangements could often be melancholy, nuanced with sad irony. On his 2019 album, Assume the form, in a love song called Are you in love?, he sings: Are you in love? / Make your best impression on me.
He can also be upbeat, in spurts. On the same album, he collaborates with the American rapper André 3000 to Where is the trap ?, which begins with the brilliant optimism of André (We delay the show, we kiss for so long / We breathe through our noses, until the breath goes away / And everything slows down / Everything is rosy now) before Blake arrives with his verse to spoil the show: Where is the trap ? (Can’t be wrong) / Where’s the trap? / There must be, there must be a trap.
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It’s the kind of disruptive mood swings, usually accompanied by abrupt changes in musical arrangements, that make Blake’s music an acquired taste. It could be a taste worth acquiring, however.
Blake grew up in a musical household and was trained in classical music. This is perhaps why even if he started very early in the field of electronic music, his compositions have characteristics that one can often observe in classical music: two-three sets of melodies; harmonic refrains; and recap. He infused electronic pop with a melancholy aspect that seems to be an influence of certain constructions of classical music.
His new album, Friends who break your heart, is one of the easiest to understand. Yes, there are the brand disruptions – vocals soar in unexpected directions and new melodies supplant old ones on the same track. Yet the songs are more accessible, sometimes because of his collaborators. Track Show me, for example, features singer Monica Martin, who brings a note of hope and luminosity in a song that opens on the lines: I heard you were in control of love / It just didn’t come out for me / I heard you had a sweet way / That I haven’t seen yet.
The album also has other easily accessible entry points. One is Blake’s voice, especially when not tuned automatically or supplemented with special effects. In a few songs, like Say what you want, his voice strangely resembles that of The National’s Matt Berninger. This is yet another example of his ability to change his style.
Many contemporary musicians try to muddy the waters in what is almost a sort of post-modern thing to try and stand out in a scene where everything sounds so derivative and similar to music from decades past. But few do it with the perfection Blake seems to have. His new album is proof of that.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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