Monday, July 11, 2011

James Blake's Confessions in the Chaos

James BlakeMy family is pretty small, so when I became involved with my wife’s much larger family, it took some time to adjust to the overall activity level of family gatherings.  I have learned to sit back and ride out the more vigorous times and wait for the quieter moments to catch up with relatives.  This weekend, during a particularly hectic moment at the family’s condo in San Antonio, I took advantage of the chaos to stealthily disappear, headphones in hand, behind the curtains onto the moonlit porch beyond.  With the curtains and sliding door closed, I was relatively isolated from the bustling commotion inside.  Almost ashamedly, I wedged in my earbuds and indulged in James Blake’s full-length debut.

Viewed from the exterior, guiltily sitting outside in the dark by myself listening to music may seem a bit brooding, if not gothic, but the backlit shapes of trees blowing in summer winds was the perfect setting for this fascinating and emotive album.  I was immediately drawn in.  In the course of its perfect 38 minute length, Blake sets his soothing blue-eyed soul in a stark reverb-laden void with humming dubstep bass and erratic skips that may make you check your CD for fingerprints (if you get into the whole CD thing, that is).

Notice that part in the middle?  That's called silence.  It actually happens in music sometimes.  Don't panic.

Blake is clearly keyed in to the current soundscape of electronica, using multitracking, pitch-shifting, autotuning, and an array of other emergent 21st century tropes, but always as effects and rarely as clichés.  Every impossible sound on the album seems grounded in the acoustic possibilities of the naked voice or piano.  In keeping these plates spinning, Blake crafts a melancholic confessional that presents itself like a cybernetic gospel choir comprised entirely of distorted versions of himself, transmuted to the edge of humanity but still identifiably human. 

A possibly valid criticism that could be leveled against Blake is that his songs are structurally repetitive, but I think to fixate of this aspect of his work is to miss the point of what he is trying to do.  His lead single Wilhelm Scream is less a song proper than it is a theme and variation.  In this case, though, the main melody is not the thing that undergoes a radical transformation, but the environment in which the melody exists.  It begins in a rather bleak setting, but in the course of three minutes it gets pushed to the very brink of drowning in full-on white noise pandemonium.  At the last minute, however, the melody is jerked back to its relatively naked state just to remind the listener where the whole thing started.  A note-for-note transcription would not adequately convey this timbral and ambient journey.

James Blake stands out amongst the albums I have been listening to this year in the same way that Jeff Buckley’s Grace emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the 90s.  It is still taboo to equate anyone with Buckley, and Blake's brand of expressiveness is borne out of a more digital age, but his principled directness makes In Bloom seem as if Radiohead has been sitting still for the past five years (which they have not).  On his debut, Blake has created a haunting and sometimes unsettling acoustic experience that definitely deserves an attentive listen (in the moonlight if you can find some). 

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