With a fondness for space the size of the Grand Canyon, James Blake was held up as the dubstep genre’s antidote to Skrillex when his self-titled debut album became the hipster LP of choice back in 2011. But the 24-year-old Londoner’s avoidance of anything resembling a tangible melody also drew criticisms that his success was an undeniable case of style over substance.
Lead single “Retrograde,” a ghostly slow-jam which recalls D’Angelo at his 90s peak, hinted that Blake might not want to be such a divisive force for follow-up, Overgrown. But like the stunning cover version of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love,” which helped James Blake receive a Mercury Prize nomination, it’s something of a red herring.
Indeed, the fact that Blake is now two years into a relationship with Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman hasn’t hampered his ability to sound completely and utterly inconsolable – his quivering falsetto often threatening to crack under the weight of despair on the likes on the unsettling bass-pop of “To The Last” and the woozy gospel of “DLM.”
This fragility is best used to devastating effect on “I Am Sold,” a haunting skeletal ballad which sits up there with the finest morose offerings of Antony & The Johnsons. But like its predecessor, the constant yearning can border on the self-indulgent. Overgrown only begins to show any real sign of progression when Blake teams up with someone more maverick than himself: firstly with Wu Tang Clan rapper RZA, who virtually relegates Blake to guest on his own song with the lo-fi nocturnal hip-hop of “Take A Fall For Me”; and secondly with visionary producer Brian Eno, who serves up a suitably ambient melting pot of white noise and glitchy percussion on the ominous “Digital Lion.”
Like James Blake, Overgrown is difficult to warm up to at first. But in a world where the speaker-blasting bass wobble still reigns supreme, it’s the kind of intelligent record that dubstep most definitely still needs.