Hearing Voices

James Blake’s dazzling debut album is somewhere between avant-garde dance music and blue-eyed soul.

James Blake.

James Blake is a singer most comfortable using other people’s voices. Across the several EPs and remixes he’s released over the past few years, this British musician, 21, has explored the musical and emotive properties of the disembodied human voice, stitching vocal samples—Kelis and Aaliyah here, Lil Wayne there, less recognizable sources everywhere—into his clicking, humming compositions, which can be funny and moving, often at once. Increasingly over time, the other person’s voice in James Blake’s music has been his own voice, othered: He will sing a melody, sample himself, distort the sample, chop it up, and arrange it into a song.

Blake is a burgeoning star at home. He came in at No. 2 in the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, and his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” has been added to the Radio One playlist. In America he’s much more of an unknown—as burgeoning U.K. stars tend to be—though he will be less unknown next week when James Blake comes out: An eerily pretty, quietly dazzling debut album that takes up residence somewhere between avant-garde dance music and blue-eyed soul. (The album will be available online and in the U.K.; an official U.S. release date hasn’t yet been announced.) All 11 of its songs feature Blake’s high, delicately choked singing, which at times suggests Antony Hegarty, Arthur Russell, and, particularly in the context of Blake’s twitchy, catchy electronic beats, Thom Yorke. On James Blake, Blake’s voice shows up sampled, reanimated, and reconfigured—as it was on, say, the arresting “I Only Know (What I Know Now),” from 2010’s Klavierwerke EP—but also, for the first time, unadorned, tender, and trembling.

Brian Eno, describing the making of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts once, called the album an attempt to muddle what he referred to as Western pop composition’s “pyramidal” value system, where the voice sits above the other elements of a song. Blake’s music mounts its own assault on that pyramid. His remix of Lil Wayne’s rumbling “A Milli” is a particularly clever case. Whereas the original song pits several voices against each other—the droning, pitched-down “a milli” chant and assorted shouts and shrieks, which provide the song’s musical bed, and Wayne’s rapid-fire, higher-register rhymes hop-scotching across it—Blake’s remix is a mirthful three-way collision between Wayne’s voice and itself: At the song’s manic climax, Wayne’s rhymes run simultaneously at regular speed, fast, and slowed-down, so that the main event becomes its own accompaniment.

The music on James Blake is more melancholic and never that cacophonous, mostly steering clear of climaxes in favor of pensive moods and intricate piecework—when there is a climax, it carries that much more force for the spellbinding hush it rends, as on “I Never Learnt To Share,” when a primitive-sounding synthesizer grinds and squeals its way through a sudden stomping, robo-funk breakdown.

Throughout the album, Blake repeats cryptic, often unintelligible lyrics. Perhaps they’re riddles, perhaps they’re words sampled and strung together in something like the haute-electronic equivalent of refrigerator magnet poetry. On “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II,” a multi-tracked, robotically pitch-corrected Blake seems to be pleading, “Beacon, don’t fly too high,” but I’m not sure. There and elsewhere, Blake shows a facility with evocative, pop-simple phrases. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me,” he repeats on “I Never Learnt To Share,” his voice quivering with what you might call melancholy ecstasy. “But I don’t blame them.”

Blake has a surefooted, if oblique, sense of song craft, but this is a minimalist, detail-oriented album. Its studio trickery isn’t mere ornamental retrofitting but an essential compositional device. On “I Mind” he whips his own looped, wordless keening up and down the scale like a lariat, giving the track its central melody, which is accompanied at points by nothing more than a static haze and stumbling, widely spaced piano chords, at others by crisply percolating programmed drums. On “To Care (Like You),” deflated whoops (which pay seeming homage to those in the desultory beat for Wu-Tang Clan’s “Hollow Bones“) overlap and cut each other off in a jerky, mournful call-and-response. Like Blake’s fellow Brits in The xx (whose quiet, desolate rock he’s said he admires), he is largely an architect of negative space, directing our ears toward marginal-seeming details (and their absences), like a nearly sub-sonic bass line that cuts in and out of “Limit to Your Love,” or piano notes on “Why Don’t You Call Me” that resonate long after the key has been struck.

There’s something haunted about the album, suffused as it is with a spirit of loss that has to do with Blake’s wounded moaning but which is also a structural fact of the songs themselves, built as they are around sampled voices—disfigured and shorn of context, original copies that gesture toward some earlier state beyond our reach. The samples twitch and ache like phantom limbs.

There is no twitch on “Measurements,” the album’s elegiac closer, but there is plenty of ache. Blake’s voice is distorted and multi-tracked into an effete cyborg army as it traces a hymnal, gospel-tinged melody over warm keyboard tones. The lyrics revolve around a cryptic bummer—”Crease your pride, telling lies, that you’re not on your own,” Blake sings (or something close to it). The massed, uplifting chorus of Blake’s voice both confirms that vision of solitude and tells a different story altogether.

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