james blake

Album Review: James Blake “The Colour In Anything”

James Blake has returned with his third full length album entitled The Colour In Anything, which trades in abstract sonic soundscapes while impressively progressing the Londoner’s songwriting skills. Originally scheduled for release two weeks ago, Blake dragged the release date back after everyone started going crazy for Lemonade. Whether it was to avoid the competition with Beyonce, or if it was a purposeful business move to try and capitalise on the attention he would get from his work on the album, is unclear. But that’s hardly surprising when it comes to the 27-year old who seems to enjoy shrouding himself in opaque sounds and clouded meanings.

At 17 songs and 76 minutes long, the album stands as something that requires your patience as well as your full attention. In today’s day and age where the album is no longer revered and appreciated as it once was, it is a bold gamble by Blake. In a time when instant gratification is sought in the form of social media snippets and an endless grab bag of singles, how will a complex and immersive 17-tracker grab one’s attention and most importantly, hold it throughout?

It begins with Radio Silence, the album’s rumoured title since early last year. It may no longer carry the pressure of being the title track, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. It features trademark Blake keys alongside sombre hums and electronic swathes. Points then follows as his vocals bounce around in unsettling silence before a throbbing bass kicks in. “It’s sad that you’re no longer her,” he repeats over and over again while almost reaching the thresholds of psychosis as a lost love is pined over.

“It’s bigger in scope and a by-product of a lot of change and growing up, really, a lot of self-improvement and reflection,” Blake said of his new album in a recent interview with Pitchfork.

“My relationship was a catalyst for those kinds of changes; the person I’ve been with for the past year or so really brilliantly held up a mirror to me. I feel now as if I can identify with more empathy and relate to people.”

This new found sense of empathy and ability to relate to others is felt greatly in Love Me In Whatever Way, which is a piano ballad punctuated by electro squabbles and Blake’s rich gospel vocals. Meanwhile, Timeless features an ominous patter of drums while again his vocals are placed front and centre when he sings mournfully, “You know you slide out when you slide in with graceful shadow.”

Blake emerged from an off-shoot of the dubstep movement in 2009, but he was always a musician that enjoyed the comedown as much as the climax. His bleary eyed soul-revealing music had hints of just about everything within it. There was the stylised flourishes of R&B, gospel infused vocals and his trademark electronic beats. This made him tricky to pin down- while along the way he became a critical darling scooping up awards such as the prestigious Mercury Prize in England.

The gorgeous f.o.r.e.v.e.r perhaps showcases what Blake has become best known for then since he first broke onto the scene as a 21-year old. It is an emotionally engaging piece which sees him hiding behind nothing but a piano. “There’s a mirror in my room that I’ve never used, while you were away I started loving you” he painfully declares. The loneliness of a separation laid bare in two simplistic lines.

Put That Away And Talk To Me then shows the other side of the Brit which sees him using auto tuned vocals, sparse electronic beats, and lyrics that Drake himself would be proud of. “You know you are just fuel, afraid to die and nothing to do, do you like it when your heroes lose?” Before he then questions to himself, “Where is my beautiful life? I’m not living here anymore.” The track proves that even a much loved and respected musician is susceptible to the pitfalls that we all fall into. Blake is resigned to the disconnection of the age but isn’t afraid to voice his thorough dissatisfaction with the state of all things during the meantime.

“When you’re living an unstructured life, you can quickly develop self-doubt. You haven’t learned the same mechanisms for keeping yourself busy or active. I needed to improve my headspace, so I spent a year trying to improve my mental state,” he later revealed in the same interview.

“I hope I’m right when I’m speaking my mind, I hope my life isn’t a sign of the times,” he sings in I Hope My Life- 1800 Mix. The swirling synths and faded beat tries to support Blake but the self-doubt he talked about is unable to be hidden here. It spills out of him in an anxious mess as he is unsure about both himself and the world he lives in. Self-doubt has always been a major theme in his work, but it sounds like he is trying to escape away from it in some form without fully realising how deeply it is engrained into both his personality and his music.

There is a tangible element of progression though – a desire to move away from the past while using it as a catalyst for the future. The melodies twist and squirm back on each other as the familiar cut of Blake’s lonesome one-liners take on even greater resonance. Perhaps he was previously guilty of allowing his production to take precedence over the actual songwriting, but that isn’t something he is guilty of often here.

My Willing Heart, co-written by Frank Ocean, features a beautiful piano line and electronic swirls. It has the feel of being locked up inside a secret that still needs to be kept. It’s fragile, it’s dark, but it is also redemptive. There may not be any answers to be found but the mere questions in themselves supply some sort of comfort. And this is again repeated on Choose Me which sees pained vocals and looped electronics co-exist compellingly. The music slips into a chasm of alienation, but Blake’s vocals cling to the edge, just barely remaining ahead of the beat and the inevitable fall.

I Need A Forest Fire features Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on vocal duties as the two combine together seamlessly. Indeed, it almost feels like a lost cut for a Bon Iver track from their last self-titled release in 2011. The forest fire destroys everything in sight, but it also brings with it rejuvenation. Consequently, it stands as a perfect metaphor in many ways for the record. The desire to start again is prevalent but the pain of leaving the past behind, along with all the hurt that existed within it, is a hard thing to do.

Meanwhile, Noise Above Our Heads is a bleak lullaby that unsettles you with unease rather than confirms your safety and place in the world. Modern Soul, the first single to be released from the album, features sparse percussion, the faint sound of sirens in the background, and the endlessly repeated refrain of “I want it to be over.” While the title track is a compelling but forlorn piano ballad.

Listening to The Colour In Anything is like looking through a frosted pane of glass. You can see the movement and the instigations of thought behind it, but it still somehow remains a mystery. It is impressive that such a mystery exists of course, after having spent 76 minutes with Blake, you still feel like you don’t really know him and there is much to learn in what was left unsaid. There are certainly secrets revealed throughout, but they arrive to you through Chinese Whispers so you can never be sure as to their real truth.

It is broken soul music from a man that seems lost in a world where identity means everything to everyone else but him. There is a lot left to the imagination, but that’s what makes this introspection so beautiful. It gives pieces of its creator out but not enough so that you can craft a fully formed picture in the mind. Sure, there are preconceptions of what the man himself and his music are, however as he has shown here, you can’t ever be sure of the exact colour in everything.

James Blake will be in town to perform at Splendour in the Grass this July. In conjunction, he will be performing headline shows in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth:

James Blake Tour Dates

Tues, 26 Jul: Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Wed, 27 Jul: Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Thurs, 28 Jul: Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
Sat, 30 Jul: HBF Stadium, Perth

Click here to see all Splendour in the Grass sideshows

Image: NME