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It seems 21st century gloom-pop has grayer places to go than The xx’s 2009 debut. On his much-hyped first full-length, London-based singer and producer James Blake goes from bleak to bleaker, with processed R&B vocals that swoop and yearn amid tortured dubstep surroundings, seemingly channeled to your laptop from a dystopic funeral mass. It’s a sound Blake honed in his bedroom, the story goes.
Blake released his first 12-inch in 2009. A string of EPs attracted critical notice in 2010, in large part because of his distinctive pipes. While Blake’s vocals are deeply rooted in the smooth-seduction school of contemporary R&B, more often than not he fragments and processes them. At some points chopped and screwed, at others finely Auto-tuned into reiterative layers of sound, Blake’s voice shares space with minimalistic beat loops and digital synths, which flitter and burble and sometimes disappear beneath the surface. What results is a ghastly and deconstructed quality, like some sort of post-modern, post-apocalyptic Rick Astley. Some writers have called it post-dubstep.
Blake builds tension through sustained silences and broken-down arrangements, which means his damaged yet evocative vocals are almost always the main instrument. But James Blake is a producer’s album, not a singer’s one, and there’s occasionally a productive tug-of-war between Blake’s voice and his dexterous, slow-burning soundscapes. Often, the songs feel sinewy and naked; there’s rarely extra air.
Lead single “Wilhelm’s Scream” is a self-doubt confessional guided by subtle synth noodles and electronic clicks, with Blake crooning: “I don’t know about my dreaming anymore/All I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’…” “Limit to Your Love” is a haunting update of a song by Feist, from her 2007 album The Reminder, in which forceful piano strikes and pleading vocals transform the track into sparse, trippy gospel. “I Never Learned to Share” showcases heavily treated vocals that sound both soulful and artificial, with Blake repeating a single lyric (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them”) until it’s swallowed beneath a symphony of bit-crushed synths and white noise. Each of these tracks is a heartbreaker.
But on the whole, they amount to an album that’s probably best approached at a distance. A slow-burning eruption on all counts, James Blake can feel excruciatingly intimate in one moment and impossibly isolated the next; it has emotional extremes and experimental ones, and they’re often dizzying. For better or worse, that may mean that James Blake ought to be filed under “the sound of 2011,” as London’s Observer has prophesied. Everything Blake does seems tweaked for precision, but in the end, he’s probably a little too out-of-focus for his own good.