For the first time in months, Lady Gaga is dominating the American music press because of something she sang rather than something she wore. Sort of. Her “Born This Way” is a booming musical meat dress: What justifies its demand on your attention is how insistently it demands your attention, and in that sense, it’s the type of pop spectacle which Gaga has perfected. It’s not so much vacuous as underdetermined, the song effectively incomplete until the inevitable media freak-out peaks and subsides.
Meanwhile, in Britain, an entirely different breed of entertainer stands at the center of a no-less-considerable media frenzy. James Blake doesn’t live and breathe the hyperbole of the entertainment industry. He’s handsome but not preternaturally so, and yet his image has become a fixture of blogs and even magazine covers in the U.K. As of last December, he was officially the sound of 2011. That Blake became a cause célèbre among trendsetters at Clash and The Wire was no surprise; more of a coup was his second-place showing in the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll—where he nearly bested the atrocious Jessie J, whose Ke$ha-cum-Nicki-Minaj sleaze will be inescapable by year’s end—on the strength of his austere, somewhat prickly electro-R&B.
As a talent, Blake is undeniable, but as a pop star, he seems totally implausible. Listen to any of the EPs that preceded James Blake and tell me where you hear the platinum single. The brooding, sample-driven “CMYK”? The ultra-minimal “I Only Know (What I Know Now)”? Each of those songs is tremendous in its own right, but it’s impossible to imagine them vying for chart positions with “Born This Way.” Yet one gets the sense that this is exactly the future for which Blake is being groomed.
James Blake is being distributed in America by Universal Republic, the same label behind two hugely successful British imports, Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine. Its homegrown talents include Colbie Caillat and Owl City. One line of explanation goes that Blake has presented the industry with the best opportunity to break dubstep to a mainstream audience. That’s probably not true, and for a number of reasons. Safer crossover artists—most recently, Rusko—have underperformed commercially; meanwhile, the whole prospect of selling dupstep has been somewhat obviated given that, scene ambassador or no, the once-experimental style has already been pressed into service for performers like Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Ke$ha.
Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning that James Blake is not a dubstep album. Blake’s first step out of anonymity was a remix of “Stop What You’re Doing” by Untold, a British bass-music experimentalist whose own relationship to the dubstep scene is fairly ambiguous; like Blake, his work is sometimes tagged as “post-dubstep.” As with many underground music genres (think hardcore or industrial), dubstep exhibits the apparently contradictory qualities of being both ill-defined and highly orthodox. Blake’s first EP, Air and Lack Thereof, hewed to the uptempo, bass-driven template characteristic of the style, but that didn’t mean that its authenticity would go unquestioned. Like his colleagues in Mt. Kimbie, Blake made dubstep that sounded soulful and optimistic. Note that a highly regarded dubstep compilation called Tectonic Plates features songs with titles like “Nightmarez,” “Gutter,” “Disturbance,” and “Punisher,” and that the genre’s current critical paragon performs under the moniker Burial and you’ll understand why Blake’s playful sound experiments met with an ambivalent reception.
Listening to Blake’s trio of EPs, especially the downtempo Klavierwerke, it becomes clear that Blake isn’t an actual dubstep musician, but rather a musician who was briefly fascinated by dubstep. This view of his work is borne out by his biography. Blake has been trained as a pianist and singer since he was six, the musical diet of his youth mostly drawn from his parents’ extensive library of classical and jazz recordings. But as with British musicians from Mick Jagger to Massive Attack, Blake was also riveted by American R&B. He has cited Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and D’Angelo as inspirations, and the latter’s enigmatic Voodoo may well be the determinative influence on James Blake‘s atmospheric blue-eyed soul. Blake’s discovery of dubstep was actually a recent one: He became a devotee of genre pioneers Digital Mystikz just before he enrolled at Goldsmiths University in London to study popular music. Their influence appears to have waned. Most of James Blake is too slow and too spare to qualify as dubstep, and where Blake does reference the U.K.‘s underground dance scene, he does so subtly. A rattle of sub-bass splits into his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” and the ghostly, pitch-shifted vocals that have become ubiquitous among British producers surface on “I Mind” and “I Never Learnt to Share.”
But just as many of James Blake‘s sonic antecedents exist entirely beyond the purview of dance music. Antony’s androgyne cabaret and Bon Iver’s celebrated vocoder experiment, “Woods,” are among the more fashionable points of reference. But, perhaps not coincidentally, Blake’s major-label debut also channels a set of influences that is more marketable and also undeniably less cool. His choice of the Feist cover as a first single is a clear hat-tip to the influence of female singer-songwriters on his work; meanwhile, he’s turned in a stunning rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” for BBC Radio 1, and he often sings in a low tenor reminiscent of Nina Simone. That trio of Starbucks-approved chanteuses is pretty far from the cutting edge of anything, but the combination of traditionalist songwriting and avant-garde sonics is what makes James Blake such a compelling listen. Like Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, Blake’s album is one that gestures both to the distant future and to a bygone Golden Age of classic pop.
It’s no accident that Blake’s pop pantheon is predominately female. Last year’s “CMYK” was structured around vocal samples from Kelis and Aaliyah, with Blake using the two R&B singers’ voices as proxies for his own. He does all of the singing on James Blake, but he’s still following up on that single’s use of technology to bridge the gap between himself and the musicians who inspire him. Blake’s natural singing voice is not conventionally masculine, and he frequently employs the vocoder to make himself sound completely genderless, as on the android a cappella “Lindesfarne I.” Though Blake never indulges in Gaga or even Antony levels of camp, there’s an element of hi-tech drag to his work, which, by virtue of rendering his own gender plastic, is as brazenly queer as anything that either of those artists has done. Many of the album’s best tracks, including the standout single “A Wilhelm Scream,” show Blake using his studio wizardry to bring out his inner R&B diva.
If only Blake’s compositions always felt so purposive. Too often Blake either mistakes his process, which is admittedly fascinating, for an end in itself, or worse, uses his sonic abstractionism to cover over a song’s lack of interesting ideas. It’s in these moments that one remembers how recently Blake made the transition from producer to songwriter. He’s too dependent on mantra-like lyrical repetition, hoping, not always without cause, that his words will take on a hypnotic power when coupled to his minimal arrangements. It’s a perfectly fine songwriting tactic, and one that Blake is able to pull off more frequently than he ought to because his command of pacing and negative space is so well-developed. Nonetheless, Blake nearly makes a methodology out of what should be a single weapon in his arsenal, and by late in the album, his shaky grasp of more conventional pop dynamics becomes an evident weakness. It’s a classic dilemma for artists too well-versed in music theory: too much John Cage, not enough Joni Mitchell.
That means that James Blake comes up unexpectedly short in terms of truly memorable songs, but, even so, it’s impressive how even those tracks which feel unfinished or overly conceptual are redeemed by their contribution to the album’s whole. James Blake has a nearly mystical aura to it; it’s clear from the first track that the album is special. Novelty, in the parlance of music criticism, typically carries the pejorative sting of fleeting amusement. I suspect this has less to do with cynicism than with oversaturation: Confronted with far more media than we can process, we don’t know how to experience newness as anything other than a product to be consumed. It’s a way of relating to music that doesn’t allow for surprises, and certainly not for vulnerability. And so there’s something genius about the way that Blake’s work is premised on an aesthetic of recurrent silence, the counterintuitive result being that the 40 minutes you spend listening to his album may be the only part of your day where you experience silence at all. To listen to James Blake is not just to hear something new, in the sense that the music here marks a clear and creative evolution from any of Blake’s identifiable influences, but also to hear something new, in the sense that Blake knows how to make his listeners receptive to his music through the strategic use of silence.
Certainly, none of this sounds like a formula for pop stardom. In the long run, a studious wunderkind like Blake is probably a safer investment than most of his labelmates; he did, after all, release three EPs in 12 months, then prepare an LP of entirely new material by February of the next year, and seems perfectly willing to expand his fanbase through covers and remixes. Compared to a train wreck like Winehouse, he’s a Boy Scout. It’s also possible that his signers just read one too many reviews heralding Blake as the future of electronic music to not get on board. What I do know is that at the center of the deafening hype is a fascinating debut, and having spent the last week immersed in it, I suppose I too am willing to invest a bit of hyperbole in James Blake, particularly if it helps convince you to invest a few hours with this uncommonly powerful album.