"Music can't be everything." Damn, that is not something you want to hear sung softly by the likes of UK bass pioneer and R&B crooner James Blake. And yet, this is how he closes out his third LP, as "Meet You In The Maze" fades out into oblivion, and the synthesized harmonies fizzle apart into binary noise. The tune is somewhat reminiscent of "Lindisfarne", the softly spoken wonder from his 2011 debut LP, except this time the softness of the autotuned accompaniment feels like it has lost its warmth. The Colour In Anything finds James Blake wandering familiar streets and finding less and less with each pass. For such a sonic pioneer, it's a bleak thought - looking into the massive vault of inspirations both new and old and finding nothing to fit the mood precisely. And yet, it's this struggle that defines Blake so exactly as the story unfolds. Once upon a time, Blake made a name for himself with electronic fans and singer-songwriter fans alike covering "A Case of You", a classic by his muse, Joni Mitchell. Now, Blake continues to find inspiration in a melancholy sense of arrested development, so far yet not so far gone. Over a massively dynamic and emotionally crushing eighty minutes, Blake gives us a day in the life of one of the most enigmatic producers and songwriters around. He challenges us to wander with him, finding color in whatever we can only to give it away at first chance.
Last time we saw James Blake, he was a popular man in a crowded room. 2013's Overgrown was (and is still) Blake's poppiest offering by a mile. It was maybe the first record ever to feature both Brian Eno and The RZA, and furthermore, Chicago star Chance the Rapper showed up on a fantastic remix of "Life Round Here" before supposedly moving in with Blake. While Blake's early material like The Bells Sketch and CMYK defined Blake himself, it was this Blake of 2011 EP, Enough Thunder, (featuring the "A Case With You" cover and Bon Iver feature "Fall Creek Boys Choir") and Overgrown fame that the pop world wanted to swallow whole. This wave of obsession, ironic in its closeness to the new album release, came to a peak in the form of Lemonade track "Forward", in which James Blake gives Beyoncé a one minute interlude as he plays a piano theme he could write in his sleep.
The funny thing is, while it's his biggest and fullest record yet, The Colour in Anything sounds completely apart from Overgrown. While its predecessor seemed to know no length or bound in terms of size, this one often feels small and claustrophobic, overcrowded when things get out of control or overly emotional, like having a fight with a loved one in a small apartment. The rhythm of the record bounces between sparse piano ballads and adventures in minimal bass production. As the lush yearning of "Radio Silence" fades, we get the dilating bass pulsar of "Points", in which Blake revisits the likes of his oldest material in sparse and rough analog form. Then, Blake bounces back to pop structure and delicacy for "Love Me In Whatever Way" before "Timeless" takes a singular thought and blows it out your soundsystem like there's no tomorrow. Then again, "F.O.R.E.V.E.R." returns to supreme smallness for another moment of Mitchell inspiration: "Don't use the word forever, we live too long to be so loved". Then the post-smart phone anxiety of "Put That Away and Talk to Me" throws dozens of skittering vocal samples at you out of any context before the looming synthesized dark of "I Hope My Life" beckons like a deadly omen.
Processing the pacing of The Colour In Anything and trying to reciprocate the energy Blake is putting out, you start to feel anxious, bordering on neurotic. You start to get the feeling that Blake can't not process his feelings through a keyboard. And suddenly, the crushing sentiment of the last song starts to make sense. Maybe he isn't communicating that music can't give you substantial happiness. Maybe instead he's trying to tell himself that music can't be his only fallback when it all hits the fan. The bigger problem for Blake personally is this: what happens when it's expected of you, when this is your bread and butter?
The sooner the listener picks up on this emotional divisiveness, the better. At that point, you just get to fall in love with the extreme peaks and valleys, and resonate with them in full color. And truly, while the valleys may be devastating, the peaks are monumental. At about the halfway point, Blake throws his best two numbers at the wall. "Choose Me" is a massive ballad, beginning from a simple a cappella harmony, and building up and above the likes of "Digital Lion" by a mile. Echoing Joni Mitchell's classic that gave him such a foundation, he belts his heart out. "I looked into myself like a case with you. You don't weigh me down like you think you do. I'm not looking to hold you down... I'd rather you choose me every day." What a way to put the gift of receiving love from others, when you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve so heavily. Then, once you've recovered from that, Bon Iver feature "I Need A Forest Fire" begs for explosive and voracious love, the kind that these two solitary crooners fantasize of when they break out of their blissful, colorful shells. The harmonies herein blow "Fall Creek Boys Choir" out of the water, and it's easily one of the best tracks offered from either singer.
Blake's balance between the explosive and the somber is what put him on the map. It's this hyperbole that made tracks like "Sparing the Horses" and "I Never Learnt to Share" some of the most refreshing and mind-boggling material around. And it's obvious why: he's being honest to himself. Balance isn't in James Blake's repertoire. As he puts it himself in the third-quarter wonder, when his heart is broken, there are "Two Men Down", one for each side of him, both fully capable of a poignant and meaningful response, both ready to bear it all for the art. While pop tracks like "Retrograde" and Drake remixes alike both find James Blake doing just fine in a comfortable place, he shines brightest in dangerous terrain. The type of love Blake offers doesn't come cheap, and he shows us as much with The Colour in Anything. To really find that life and that inspiration, you need to look deeper, reach further, and fall harder in love with both the successes and the failures. It's these two sides - hard and soft, blistering and tender - that make James Blake whole.
The Colour in Anything is out this week on Polydor. It's available digitally now, but you can grab it on CD or vinyl this Friday at your local record store. Blake has international tour dates book throughout the summer, but check his website for updates on a North American tour when it happens.
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