James Blake first arrived onto the recording scene with 2011’s minimal, experimental, reverb-laden James Blake. The crowning achievement of the British electronic/ singer-songwriter’s artist’s debut was an ‘electrified’ cover of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” (The Reminder). Aside from “Limit To Your Love”, some of James Blake could be described as somewhat indulgent, occasionally ponderous, and often hypnotizing.
2013’s follow-up, Overgrown doesn’t compromise Blake’s gift for electronic wizardry or low-key, soulful vocals. Overgrown does something that James Blake didn’t do as well – truly engage the listener to their maximal potential throughout the minimal, hypnotic ideas. How does this effort accomplish this? The material is generally better and as a recording artist, Blake has shown the expected and anticipated growth between debut and sophomore efforts. Where James Blake had its fair share of criticisms to accompany its potential, Overgrown feels like the masterpiece of a veteran.
“Overgrown” opens nebulously, setting a mysterious and moody tone. Blake’s vocals are clear and relaxed, never covered up by the production. A cut shaped by evolution and sound pacing, “Overgrown” evolves from simple to layerings with pads, strings, and Blake’s signature reverb-heavy piano. Beautiful, different, and thoughtful (“I don’t wanna be a star / but stone on the shore… when everything’s overgrown…”), “Overgrown” is the first stepping stone in the success of this second endeavor.
“I Am Sold” has a ‘tough act to follow’, but the cool electro-R&B cut lives up to the tall task. Here, Blake’s vocals oscillate between being overtly present and mixed in the background, a technique very much a staple in electronic music. On “Life Round Here”, Blake opts for more ‘synths’ aside from manipulation of his beloved acoustic piano patch. His use of dynamic contrast to subdue and highlight synths is a testament to Blake’s creativity and musicianship. Additionally, Blake’s synthetic progression from softer to more edgy, harder synths is a thoughtful contrast. Blake truly ‘gets’ it.
“Take A Fall for Me” is an unexpected triumph, featuring veteran rapper RZA. At the onset, James Blake sings a key recurring line (“you can’t marry her”). RZA expands on this general
lyric/sentiment, detailing his love, affection, and dedication, questioning “What will become of me? If I can’t show my love to thee / what will become of me?” on the hook. Throughout, Blake throws in some vocal ad libs and cool production cues. Continuing the excellence, single “Retrograde” finds Blake channeling his urban side superbly, accompanied initially by piano. Blake’s initial vocal runs sounds indigenous to R&B or gospel, making “Retrograde” all the more unique. Things truly grow epic on the line “Suddenly I hit…”, in which the excitement reaches a lofty peak. Haunting, beautiful, and chilling, “Retrograde” is definitely one of the year’s best songs by itself.
Accompanied by soulful piano, Blake’s vocals match on the brief but alluring “DLM”. While so much of Overgrown is focused on the timbre, Blake also delivers some compelling lyrics: “You can do more / Please don’t let me hurt you more / It’s in your stare and at your core…” “Digital Lion” allows ample time to stretch its instrumental ideas following a simple hook restating the title. Hypnotizing and animated, the synthetic drums contrasts Blake’s smoother, subdued vocals. “Voyeur”, like “DLM” benefits from some thoughtful lyrical moments: “Cause I am flawed / when I am through those doors / cause I am flawed / times unsure / I should do whatever will make you feel secure.” As always, a minimal amount of words is the perfect setting for Blake to work with without any cons.
“To The Last” sports one of the effort’s best harmonic progressions, not necessarily resolving as expected, particularly on the ‘hook’ (“To the last, you and I…”). The groove is relaxed, though still rhythmic enough to maintain tempo and overall stability. Blake’s vocals are one of the biggest highlights. Blake closes the effort as consistently as it began with “Our Love Comes Back”. The iTunes edition also includes a bonus track, “Every Day I Ran”, which happens to be a complete contrast to everything else.
After a careful listening experience, James Blake’s Overgrown not only ends up being a much stronger effort than his debut, but it is also among 2013’s very best albums. An effort different from most, Blake truly creates undeniable magic. There’s a reason why critics are being so kind: it is truly a superb effort.
Favorites: “Overgrown”; “Take a Fall for Me” featuring RZA; “Retrograde”; “To the Last”