James Blake’s route to pop stardom has been an odd one. First emerging in 2009 as a fascinating outlier in the then-flourishing dubstep scene, the Londoner’s idiosyncratic songcraft has gone on to earn him considerable crossover appeal. His self-titled debut album, released through Polydor in 2011, saw him reach new heights of success. There was a sense, though, that Blake was uneasy with his newfound celebrity (he alone declined to walk down the red carpet at that year’s Mercury Prize ceremony, for which he was a nominee). It was reflected in the album too, which felt just a little tentative, lacking in warmth and dynamism.
However, Blake has returned this month with a new single - the excellent ‘Retrograde’ - and details of his second LP, Overgrown, and he’s sounding more assured than ever. To honour the occasion here are some choice picks from Blake’s discography, charting his journey from the bowels of the UK dance underground to fringe-pop poster-boy status in five easy steps.
‘Air & Lack Thereof’
Blake’s debut release surfaced on Hemlock Recordings in 2009; a time when the imprint was instrumental in exploding the dubstep template into a cascade of intriguing new hybrids. ‘Air & Lack Thereof’ neatly sums up Blake’s contribution: the breakdowns are clearly influenced by the urban dread-scapes of foundational dubstep duo DMZ, but the recipe is spiced up with smart keys-work and a stuttering, stumbling halftime drop that continued to thrill dancefloors for months after its release.
‘Bills Bills Bills (Harmonimix)’
For a long time, the series of “Harmonimixes” floating around on YouTube remained unattributed. In reality, these playful re-imaginings of pop favourites, with their dextrous chord progressions and full-fat synth tones, couldn’t have been by anybody other than Blake. His version of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills Bills Bills’, which sees the vocal garbled, repitched and laid over an infectiously groovy dubstep template, is perhaps his finest hour.
‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’
Blake has shown a desire to keep one foot in the underground that spawned him, and he continued to put out more dancefloor-oriented 12”s and EPs in tandem with the release of his first album. The Klavierwerke EP, released on dance label R&S, is perhaps the finest of these records, showcasing a newly refined, mournful hybrid of 2-step and house. ‘I Only Know (What I Know Now)’ is its highlight: Blake deconstructs a fuzzy piano and voice recording, re-imagining it as a quietly elegiac 2-step anthem, daringly minimal but exquisitely wrought.
‘I Never Learnt To Share’
The emergence of Blake’s debut LP in 2011 marked his arrival as a pop phenomenon. Its release was anticipated with a keenness bordering on hysteria, but the album itself fell a little short of expectations; Blake’s anaemic soul croon can be ghostly, captivating, but he struggled to achieve the force of personality required to carry off a full-length. Still, there were, undeniably, fine moments. ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ features the blending of frail falsetto and autotune that characterises the album; vocal lines are densely layered over a chord progression that noodles confusedly for the first half, before building to a spine-tingling pile-up of a climax.
The first single taken from Overgrown is Blake through and through: bedroom-soul chords married with soft-edged synth work, framed in cavernous empty space. But our man seems more assured than ever before, his vocals bolder and clearer, his songwriting more direct. The buzzing, hornet-like swarms of synths over the chorus are the highlight: a touch both eminently Blake and subtly new, auguring well for the album to come.
Overgrown is due for release through Republic on April 8.