The pure ambition of the 76-minute, 17-song The Colour in Anything suggests that the ennui of James Blake’s clip-sized songwriting past might break into something personal and revelatory. The staggered piano bursts of “Modern Soul,” the pounding and melodramatic synths of “Love Me in Whatever Way,” and the consuming atmosphere of opener “Radio Silence” all communicate immediate emotion to the listener, but the album’s stretches of tepid, half-finished ideas stall any sense of momentum. Ultimately, Blake’s tonal sprawl allows him the type of endless tinkering and tedious introspection that positions him as increasingly detached—even unfeeling—as the album plods on.
Indeed, Blake pushes his voice—sometimes raw, sometimes heavily processed—to its inhuman limits on The Colour in Anything, regularly quarreling with himself in the dense layering of its songs. He screams, whispers, yelps, and even croons, always agonizingly, and for someone who famously started his career being uncomfortable singing, he’s evolved into an artist who sounds uncomfortable in any number of vocal modes. On the menacingly beautiful “Choose Me,” which opens with angelic a cappella, Blake’s falsetto provides the swirling background hook, with his shout-singing filling the verses and scraps of his Auto-Tuned warbling reiterating crucial lyrics. “I’d rather you choose me every day,” he sings to an ex, and one gets the sense from the song’s vocal cave-making—the way a new manipulation of Blake’s voice arrives the second another fades—of the many suffocating versions of “me” he puts on to win affection.
Playing the part of this tortured lover, who’s at once relatable and pitiable, has long been Blake’s strong suit, but on The Colour in Anything he’s closer to a man unhinged. Every song on the album features at least one line repeated maniacally, and some are built of almost nothing more: On the aggressively low-end “Timeless” and “I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix),” Blake’s darkroom dub connotes the paranoia and yearning that his lyrics, which in each case could fit on a deli ticket, cannot. These repeated phrases in the place of full sets of lyrics impart an air of fixation rather than heartbreak, of an inability to move past some consuming idea—and also a sense that Blake couldn’t figure out exactly what he wanted to say.
It’s in fact Blake’s songwriting partners who are more fascinating here, and not exactly hidden. The slow-played R&B chords of “My Willing Heart” are distinctly Frank Ocean’s; they beg for Frank’s voice, or Roberta Flack’s. The album highlight “I Need a Forest Fire,” where shimmering organ gives way to a Blake and Justin Vernon’s slow-motion funk, brings to mind Bon Iver. And the Vernon and Rick Rubin-assisted “Two Men Down,” which melds troubadour guitar scratching, trap-like percussion, flute sounds, trumpet synths, and the kind of minor-key chorus sung above major chords that Blake excels at, is so otherworldly that it’s hard to conjure up what exactly to say about it—besides that it doesn’t belong on this album.
There’s tension on The Colour in Anything that results from all of this, beyond the anxiety that Blake’s affectations and downcast production naturally create. He breaks himself into so many iterations and works his hand at so many styles that the album plays like recorded psychotherapy, sometimes literally: On “Put That Away and Talk to Me,” which moves like FKA twigs’s slinking R&B (perhaps the first time in Blake’s still-young career that he’s sounded like an artist he inspired), a revved-up female-sounding voice asks James repeatedly to “tell me about the early days.” It sounds like a therapist, critic, and new flame speaking at once, right as Blake obsesses over how much electronic mutation the song deserves—like the world is distracting him from the task at hand, when he’d rather use the task at hand to distract himself from the world. The Colour in Anything, as dazzling as it often is, finds Blake sidetracked by all the things he can do and doing them coldly, rather than focusing on the few things he should.