I will never forget the first time I listened to James Blake. Around the 55-second mark of “Limit To Your Love”, a massive low-frequency pulse emerges from behind the soulful piano and voice of Blake, a sensory overload that literally knocked me off my feet when it struck. The pulse suggests a darkness lurking beneath the fragile surface of this relationship; Blake’s simple piano chords and repeating hook represent the desperate attempts at an explanation for this distress. The production and emotion throughout all of his music is what got me hooked onto James Blake in the first place, and his surprise new release The Colour in Anything gives us more of the same beautiful heartbreak.
Blake released The Colour in Anything on May 5th as a surprise with only hours notice that it was coming out. The follow-up to his 2013 Mercury Prize-winning album Overgrown is 17 tracks long and clocks in at 1 hour 16 minutes, a massive release by modern standards. Yes, it’s a long album. But it’s also some of the most soulful music you’ll listen to in 2016.
The record kicks off with “Radio Silence”, the main hook a homage to classic R&B/Soul artist Bill Withers and his track “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, as he sings “I can’t believe that she don’t want to see me/We’ve lived and loved with each other so long”. Certainly, artists like Withers and Joni Mitchell (whose song “A Case of You” Blake covered beautifully) have served as inspiration for James Blake as he crafts his own brand of modern soul, and I really appreciate the musical acknowledgement right off the bat.
On this record, Blake really pushes the limit of his sonic palette, exploring familiar sounds and confidently headed in new directions all over the course of a single record. We hear the shuffling beat on “Timeless”, the fluttering beauty of “f.o.r.e.v.e.r”, the pulsing club atmosphere in “I Hope My Life”, the amazing ballad “My Willing Heart”, the spiritual “Choose Me”, the appropriately titled lead single “Modern Soul” – the songs effortlessly dip and dive between quiet and orchestral, fragile and danceable, solo and choral, electronic and organic. The most breathtaking moment comes with the very last song, “Meet You In The Maze”. Blake sings alone through a vocoder: “All those songs that came before you/They were once awaiting/Music can’t be everything”. Blake is able to pull the color from such sparse instrumentals to create these amazing, moving pieces of art. The collaborations on the record also provide stand-out moments. Rick Rubin oversaw the production, while “I Need A Forest Fire” features Bon Iver on lead vocals (led by an excited “Woo!” to start the song). Most importantly, James Blake is one of the only people that has been able to lure Frank Ocean out of hiding!
James Blake’s music can really come off as claustrophobic – even in a recent interview with The Guardian, Blake stated that he feels like he has “subdued a generation” with his use of space and silence, his lyrics dripping with sadness and despair in The Colour in Anything. These are characteristics that The xx also helped bring to the forefront and that now can be heard all over music (including on Beyonce‘s Lemonade, for which Blake wrote a track). His music makes everybody stop, listen, and feel in a fast-paced world which could use some more contemplation. A little bit of silence can help a person see the color in anything and everything.
Alternative R&B | Polydor