If you want to aggravate James Blake, describe his music as “chilled”. It is, he sighs mock-ruefully to MOJO, “one of the worst descriptions of the music I’ve ever heard. You’d think ‘post-dubstep’ would annoy me but ‘chilled’ is much worse.” It would, of course, be a novelty to hear an artist expressing a heartfelt desire to be pigeonholed and how much they yearned for a nice big label all of their very own. Blake, however, has proved particularly difficult to define since he hatched from the world of dubstep nights and independent labels into the mainstream glare of such events as BBC’s Sound Of 2011 (he was runner-up to Jessie J). Given that his debut album demanded comparisons to Burial, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Laurie Anderson, Nina Simone and Antony Hegarty, it’s no wonder attempts to stuff him into a genre cupboard and slam the door tend to spill out in a tumble of unsatisfactory qualifiers and prefixes.
“Blake, like his music, gives the impression of being a natural shape-shifter.”
“Chilled”, though, does seem especially ill-suited to describing Overgrown. Unsurprisingly, in the light of his self-titled debut, it’s not driven by flash floor-filling beats, but it’s a record that almost vibrates with the effort of repressing its more extreme emotional states so that they can be harvested, distilled, turned into something beautiful and unusual. The quiver and catch in Blake’s voice, the moments of apparent overload in his music, cannot hide the fact that this is a remarkably uptight and controlled set of songs. It is more assured than his first album: there is nothing as mysterious as the robotic spasms of Lindisfarne I and II, O Superman destabilised with a handful of kryptonite, but neither is there anything as straightforwardly maudlin as his cover of Feist’s Limit To Your Love.
This confidence could partly be explained by the change in his circumstances over the past two years. For some insight into the way the 23-year-old Londoner’s life has shifted, you just have to look at a list of the people associated with his second album. He was able to call upon Brian Eno to collaborate on the gathering electro-storm of Digital Lion. RZA supplied a couple of elegantly romantic verses on the subliminal Wu-Tang of Take A Fall For Me. The title track was, Blake says, hugely influenced by a backstage meeting with Joni Mitchell, whose A Case Of You he covered on the Enough Thunder EP, an encounter that set him thinking about artistic evolution and endurance. As a final mark of having “arrived“, Kanye West summoned Blake to his studio to discuss his work. The kiss of West didn’t necessarily help Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s image – it’s hard to keep up your tubercular mystique when you’re hanging out with superstars – but it’s to Blake’s credit that all this seductively hot A-list breath hasn’t fogged up his vision.
“It’s about dislocation, disorientation, a thwarted desire for stability.”
For Blake, like his music, gives the impression of being a natural shape-shifter and it makes sense that Overgrown is a record shaped by travel. Not the jaded dissatisfactions of the touring musician burnt out by room-service breakfasts, but a testament to the highs and lows, checks and balances, that a long-distance relationship demands. With his girlfriend living in Los Angeles, the jetlagged piano sadness of Life Round Here is dedicated to “part-time love”, the phrase “everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day” repeated over and over. Trapped in a purgatorial departure lounge, it’s music for airports, only this has nothing to do with calming ambience. It’s about dislocation, disorientation, seeing your plate-glass reflection moving alongside you on the Travelator but not immediately realising who it is. There’s a thwarted desire for stability – romantic and musical - on the title track, too: “I don’t want to be a star but a stone on the shore,” he breathes over a sombre Massive Attack-tinged pulse, before it’s all washed away by foamy cymbals. Retrograde, meanwhile, sticks some pins in conventional songwriting with its handclaps and swooping chorus, but a ghostly background vocal and sudden bursts of synthesised panic blur the lines. “So show me where you fit,” demands Blake, always trying to make connections, piece together a whole.
It doesn’t always work. At times, Overgrown becomes cloying. Blake’s voice is alluring but not entirely flexible, and while that never did Thom Yorke any harm, it’s already a small relief when track four is Take A Fall For Me, RZA turning in some delirious love poetry (“tight as the grip of a squid / gentle as the finger touch of a newborn kid”) laced with charming Anglophilia (“fish and chips with vinegar / with a glass of cold stout or wine or something similar“). It’s not just welcome vocal variety; it’s essential emotional texture on a record that doesn’t smile a lot. The cold-pressed house of Voyeur and Eno collaboration Digital Lion also add some essential dynamism, the latter’s relentless hum and tightening drums closing in like the walls in an Indiana Jones film. Blake might have complained in 2011 that US dubstep was too macho, but it’s still satisfying to hear some genuine textural crunch, not just the careful smudging of glassy surfaces, the subtle sonic cracks and fractures of I Am Sold or To The Last.
If other hands are sometimes needed to lighten his touch, however, Blake never loses control of Overgrown. At a time when people are compelled to document every whirr of their synapses, he understands the value of restraint, his meticulously assembled songs slowly giving up their secrets rather than tipping everything out at once. That doesn’t make it an easy record to love but as Overgrown takes off, the distance gradually closes.