But his next two releases—Klavierwerke and his cover version of Feist's "Limit to Your Love" late last year—showed just how far Blake had already begun to move from the blurry, soulful brand of bass music he'd made his name on. Eschewing samples for his own voice, the former embraced minimal rhythms and melodies, working for a kind of haunted spiritualism. The latter was a cavernous take on R&B, Blake's voice left without cover over mournful piano and slow, pulsating bass. It was a daring moment for the young producer, sure, this relative forsaking of a sonic brand he'd quickly but effectively established; but one that wouldn't have been nearly as effective if the track itself weren't, well, kind of devastating.
James Blake arrives, not surprisingly, as the direct descendant of his last two releases. A sort of electronic gospel record, Blake's mining ambient R&B, the woozier ends of the UK bass spectrum and the desolate indie strains of acts like Bon Iver and Antony, both of whom he's certain to be compared for the tenor of the record's vocals. But James Blake also revels in its own willingness to subside, a patterning of shady, hushed beauty that withdraws itself from focus as often as it asserts itself. This isn't a criticism per se. It's a testament to Blake's taste for texture and his appreciation for near-silence, but it also often makes him seem somewhat elusive.
Along with the Feist cover (included), "The Wilhelm Scream" is one of the album's more immediate delights, a droning wash of ambience and sly synth melodies that seem to almost swirl beneath one of Blake's crooniest moments. The spare, brokedown blues of the two "Lindisfarne"s—featuring only Blake's shaky voice, porchfront guitar and the most restrained rhythms, all slightly static worn—are just as immersive, but belie Blake's forlorn textures with a chorus that sounds almost redemptive. "Measurements," meanwhile, sounds like Jamie Lidell gutter drunk and appreciating a new dawn, while "Unluck" and "To Care (Like You)" are slightly beefier returns to his origins, their slow, clunky beats gaining in sound around Blake's vocally effected cries.
But while it's tempting to congratulate Blake on the rapidity of his evolution and the singularity of his voice, he's not exactly working without recent forebears. There's an undeniable link to the lone cabin isolationism of several of the songwriters mentioned above, shorn of musical distraction and paced to recline beneath Blake's adoration of R&B and dubby mesmerism. What Blake sacrifices in songcraft he makes up with graceful, often breathtaking atmospherics. But it's that very delicacy of his structuring that makes his songs seem so ephemeral and tough to embrace.
By cushioning his songs with so much space—even a use of silence as "articulate" as Blake's—he often undermines his own subtle hooks in a way that artists mining similar territory like Nicolas Jaar or How To Dress Well don't. James Blake is a promising debut for the producer, without question, but it also represents somewhat of a missed opportunity perhaps, one that's underwhelming at its worst and absolutely transfixing at its best.