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James Blake - Overgrown

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Artist: James Blake

Album: Overgrown

Label: Universal Republic

Review date: Apr. 12, 2013

James Blake - "Overgrown"

It’s rare for a singer to sound as consistently bummed, like clinical-dep bummed, as James Blake does on Overgrown. The object of his lamentations is conveniently out of reach, hence the constant cat-and-mouse game between enunciation and melisma. When Blake sees fit to loop a phrase or attempt a chorus, the undertaking breaks down under its own weight. The sound and worry signify nothing. Maybe all these baroque curlicues Blake shaves off with his cherubic voice exist not so much to convey emotion than to make 40 minutes pass with the sense that something’s at stake.

Although no less divisive, Laurel Halo’s Quarantine provides a counterpoint to Overgrown‘s choir-boy blues. On both albums, the electronic part needs to recede in order to make room for the vocals, creating a listening experience whose proportions are bound to feel off: somehow we’re still expecting for our faces to be right up against the detail of every bass-drum kick. Halo fills the void with dry, unguarded vocal performances that can stoop to nursery rhymes and still feel right; Blake’s voice, on the other hand, makes the listener aware primarily of how the human larynx produces sound, and that it is basically capable of doing so indefinitely. He is like a human flute this guy, begging for an ensemble to be part of, sanding down his excesses and building up his blood. On his own, it’s just wind catching over vocal cords, sometimes forming into intelligible phrases that almost immediately wear out their welcome, like “And we lay nocturnal, speculate what we feel,” and “Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day,” the latter delivered with a cant that’s pure Marina Topley-Bird.

The production barely asserts itself. Blake knows when to twist the knob on his Dave Smith Instruments synth that takes it from sounding like a piano to flanged-out drama, and there are a few drum machine rhythms that crawl out of the crepuscular funk, but they’re so expensively analog that it’s like they’re being recorded on the other side of crushed velvet.

Everything that rises must become trip-hop. I thought to myself on more than one occasion, “More like Overwrought!” Then I looked around my car, realized I was alone and that cheap puns can only be exorcised by sharing them for a quick wince. This is an album that feels like trying to sleep with an upset stomach. It’s a trying experience, being dragged down by a cinder block of curiously unmoving but widescreen emotion pressing its face against totally blown-out car speakers. Overgrown feels existentially poisoned, so maybe the Tricky reference is not far off. I felt this terminal seriousness keenly as a middle schooler watching the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet: it’s the apotheosis of a style, laden with emotion and yet totally inaccessible and florid, in the stage of decay that emits a foul, sweet smell.

By Brandon Bussolini

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