James Blake Turns 10

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James Blake

Released February 4th, 2011 on Polydor Records

Produced by James Blake

Peaked at #123 US, #9 UK

Singles:

“Limit To Your Love” (#39 UK)

“The Wilhelm Scream” (#136 UK)

“Lindisfarne / Unluck”

Dubstep was always a much more staunchly British musical form than it was anything else. Case in point: when it went to America, they smashed the genre apart with a hammer, stripped it of everything that made it good, and filled it full of tweaked-out bass and jock-jam level synth work. Perhaps it’s the American love of methamphetamines. Who knows. Either way, when I say “dubstep” people here think of energy drinks and frat parties and Skrillex. Keep that in mind as I tell you that James Blake is the first real pinnacle of crossover dubstep pop.

That’s not to say that there hadn’t been emotional resonance – art, even – in dubstep prior to 2011. Burial’s classic Untrue came out four years earlier and lit a fire under many producers: it was ghostly, yearning, and full of despair, while also having a bass attack that rattled your chest and seemed to come from everywhere. Importantly, it also featured strange, bent vocals, and this is where James Blake comes in. Blake’s conceit ten years ago was to take the trappings of dubstep and bend his own voice into them, to make strangely effective minimalist pop music. The use of AutoTune to bend his vocals was still a controversial move at the time – this was only three years after 808s And Heartbreak, keep in mind, and American audiences were full of Boomers and Boomer wannabes for whom AutoTune was a mark of the degeneration of pop music, or something. Combine that with the weird synth moves, the muted clicky percussion, and the general glitch-and-go nature of the songs and it’s no wonder that James Blake didn’t tear up the American charts: it was a year when the top Billboard tracks were items like Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and LMFAO’s novelty “Party Rock Anthem.” The UK ate it up though, which was inevitable given the evolution of home-grown styles it represented.

These are minimal, creeping pop tracks where the singer/producer makes himself an instrument in his own creation. Tracks like “Unluck” and “I Never Learnt To Share” build layers of vocals and synth into a warped form of soul music, soul where humanity is merged with cold electronics to create something hybrid and future-looking. “I Mind” has the signature wobbly bass sound of UK dubstep but it’s actually folded and compressed vocal loops; “Why Don’t You Call Me”, meanwhile, begins like a normal piano ballad before slowly being consumed by pitch-shifting and cut-and-paste techniques. There are three covers on the album as well: the most immediate is “Limit To Your Love”, a spare dubstep cover of Feist’s original; a more subtle cover is “The Wilhelm Scream”, which is an interpolation of “Where To Turn” by James Litherland, Blake’s own father and a journeyman soft- and prog-rocker. The third is even more subtle than that: Blake’s own cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You”, which is cut up and sampled on “Why Don’t You Call Me?” (as well as “You Know Your Youth”, included on the deluxe version of the album).

James Blake has forged a solid career for himself in the decade since his debut album dropped; he’s become much more of a maximalist as the years have gone on and some have opined that he takes himself entirely too seriously now. It’s worth remembering his roots as the moment dubstep went mainstream pop.

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