At the time, James Blake seemed like the young producer's endgame, a space where he could sing songs while wobbling with the best of them. It sounded like nothing else out there, which did a good job of hiding how tentative it actually was: his songs hadn't quite shaken off the trackiness of his early dubstep singles, and his voice spent much of the album autotuned, pitch-shifted and generally stuffed beneath layers of effects. In retrospect, Blake sounded a little uncomfortable with his considerable talents as a musician, as if he hadn't quite settled on how to use them yet.
Much of that hindsight comes from hearing Overgrown, Blake's masterful follow-up. Even if you loved James Blake, as I and plenty of others did, you'll sense the sea change long before this album's titular first track fades out. With only drums, bass and a sprinkle of reverb propping up his voice, Blake puts himself out there as he hasn't previously. The result is bone-chillingly gorgeous, right down to the feverish burst of pop strings that accompanies the final choruses.
If his newly confident, expressive and crystalline vocals are the unabashed star here, then the songwriting—light-years beyond the cagey chanting of "The Wilhelm Scream" or "I Never Learnt To Share"—is often the scene-stealer. Blake has long had a knack for harmonically adventurous progressions, but they really thrive within the tight pop framework he's adopted. From Joanna Newsom-style strangeness ("I Am Sold") to freeform dance experiments ("Voyeur") and the fully evolved bass-pop hybrids he's been aiming at for years ("Life Around Here," "To The Last"), Blake showcases a compositional range few artists attain while still sounding like no one but themselves. His still-singular and wholly intact production sense, where razor-sharp digital creations conjure warmth you wouldn't expect from such alien arrangements, only reinforces this.
Whether you're a student of the UK underground or the last few decades of pop songwriting, you'll be sucked in by the familiar, and wholly willing to follow Blake wherever he wanders. In fact, there's really only one question you'll want to ask, and for which no one is likely to have an acceptable answer: what, exactly, is RZA doing here? Given the reins on "Take A Fall For Me," the Wu Tang mastermind—known more for his production and business sensibilities than his talents as a rapper—drops a few verses far less memorable than the beat they accompany. (Blake's treatment of Big Boi's "Royal Flush" on "Every Dan I Ran," recently posted to Tumblr, is a worlds-better hip-hop overture.) The silver lining, though, is that it suggests Blake is still stretching his legs and experimenting. And if Overgrown is any indication, he's likely to land someplace extraordinary.