James Blake, the style-blurring electronic musician

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In his 2011 debut album of the same name, the then 23-year-old English musician James Blake got his version of A case of you, a beautiful song by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell is said to have written the song from her 1971 album blueafter her relationship with singer Graham Nash ended. Blake’s version, accompanied by a piano and not much else, may not be quite as moving as Mitchell’s, but it’s surprisingly delicate.

This is all the more surprising given that Blake is known as an electronic musician who has explored many genres – folk rock, however, isn’t particularly prominent.

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But it is precisely this versatility that we can expect from Blake. In 2019 he won the Grammy for best rap performance for King’s Dead, a song he co-wrote with several artists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning rappers Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock. Blake, gifted with a baritone, doesn’t sing much on it, but his nervous electronic style is clearly evident.

In fact, Blake has been prolific in his hip hop collaborations. In addition to Lamar, he has worked with rappers like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Frank Ocean and others.

However, you cannot put it into a category. His music is complex and cross-genre. The melodic arrangements on his tracks are often suddenly interrupted, for example through the use of nervous vocals supported by special effects or abrupt changes in beats or harmonies.

Blake’s work can be confusing and sometimes difficult to access. But even that is not an accurate description.

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Earlier this month he released his newest and fifth full-length album, Friends who break your heart. With collaborations with singers like SZA, slowthai and JID, the album could have been a direct incursion into hip-hop – but it’s not.

However, it’s one of Blake’s most accessible albums. His singing hasn’t been treated with special effects for the most part, and some of the songs he sings are so delicate and intimate it’s easy to forget that he’s actually an electronic musician with beginnings in electronic dance music (EDM) and dubstep that electronic music that originated in London and is characterized by minimalism and deep bass.

In songs like say what you want, his rich baritone is in full force against an unobtrusive, synthesizer-created soundscape as he sings: I look okay in the magic hour / In the right light with the right amount of power / And I’m okay with the life of the sunflower / And I’m okay with the life of a meteor shower. In another lane Lost angel nights, he sounds like he’s singing a delicate hymn.

A hallmark of Blake’s past albums has been a general touch of desolation. His vocals and arrangements could often be melancholy, overshadowed by sad irony. On his 2019 album Accept form, in a love song entitled Are you in love?, he sings: Are you in love? / Make your best impression on me.

He can also be optimistic – in spurts. On the same album he works with the American rapper André 3000 for What is the catch?which begins with Andrés beaming optimism (We delay the show, we kiss for so long / we breathe through our noses until the breath is gone / and everything slows down / now everything is rosy) before Blake walks in with his verse to spoil the show: What is the catch? (Can’t fool me) / What’s the catch? / There has to be, there has to be a catch.

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These are the kind of disturbing mood swings usually accompanied by abrupt changes in musical arrangements that make Blake’s music an acquired taste. However, it could be a flavor worth acquiring.

Blake grew up in a musical household and was trained in classical music. Perhaps because of this, although he entered the field of electronic music early on, his compositions have features that are often observed in classical music: two or three melodies; harmonic refrains; and recap. He has given electronic pop a melancholy aspect that seems like an influence of some classical music constructs.

His new album, Friends who break your heart, is one of the easiest to obtain. Yes, there are the typical interruptions – vocals take off in unexpected directions and new melodies replace older ones on the same track. Still, the songs are more accessible, sometimes because of its staff. The distance show me, for example, shows the singer Monica Martin, who brings a touch of hope and brightness in a song that begins with the lines: I heard you were in control of love / It just didn’t come out for me / I heard you had a cute way.

The album has other easily accessible entry points as well. One of them is Blake’s vocals, especially if it’s not auto-tuned or decorated with special effects. In some songs, such as say what you want, his singing sounds eerily like Matt Berninger from The National. It’s another example of his ability to change styles.

Many contemporary musicians try to blur styles, which is almost a kind of postmodern, in order to stand out in a scene where everything is so derived and sounds similar to the music of earlier decades. But few make it with the perfection that Blake seems to have. His new album testifies to this.

First Beat is a column about the new and groovy in the music world.

@sanjoynarayan

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