Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
I love a song that has a suddenly moment. Retrograde, the first track from James Blake’s upcoming second album ‘Overgrown’, has an explosive one; after some tentative, reassuring cooings and layered Mariah-esque runs, a swell of gaudy synths push the octave higher, and the tension closer. In a perfect swarm of lyric and sound, this particular suddenly moment (you could call it a drop or a chorus or something) comes actually alongside the word “suddenly”. Unmasked, open and beautiful. “Suddenly I’m hit.”
James Blake’s voice has always struck me as his most powerful instrument. It’s the kind of opinion that draws a lot of scepticism. You don’t love James Blake for his voice; you love him for his pioneering of wistful and wilting electronics.
James Blake’s voice has always struck me as his most powerful instrument. It’s the kind of opinion that draws a lot of scepticism out of people. You don’t love James Blake for his voice; you love him for his pioneering of wistful and wilting electronics, for the deft and clever production of his EPs and astounding debut album, for his ability to make a party with Trim completely go off. There’s a classical basis to James Blake, though. There’s plenty about him that is adventurous and unlike anything else I’ve heard, but at the core of it is a traditional and deeply human talent that keeps his songs invigorating. He’s always had something to say, and with Retrograde, it feels like he’s started talking.
The most we’ve heard from dubstep’s poster-boy lyric-wise has come to us in the form of unravelling snippets that he’s toyed with, filtered, twisted around one another and approached more like tools of expression than statements of intent. The closest he’s come to storytelling was his resounding Feist cover Limit To Your Love and last year’s bleak and beautiful Joni Mitchell cover, A Case Of You, which was, suddenly, just him and a piano. These moments were the glimmers of personality and narrative arc that hinted at a bold songwriting talent, but all his original music stuck firmly to the territory of ideas.
He trusts you to trust him, as he draws on his influences and ideas with a more obvious brushstroke.
I have always been a listener who goes in search of lyrics, though. On ‘Klavierwerke’ EP track Tell Her Safe, I hear the word “help” groaning out of those opening bars, and I trace my own half-remembered, nonsensical lyrics through the hazy clamour of synths as I sing along. On Retrograde, such a leap of imagination isn’t necessary, but that doesn’t mean I’m less engaged – it’s a lesson Blake has obviously learnt and a confident, conscious decision. He trusts you to trust him, as he draws on his influences and ideas with a more obvious brushstroke (discernible beats and lyrics bring him closer to the R&B spectrum than he’s been before) but loses none of his power for doing it. As well as the swell of “suddenly”, there’s the wallowing drop of the first time he sings the line “we’re alone now”, and the listless refrain of “and your friends are gone/ and your friends won’t come”.
Retrograde is the suddenly moment of James Blake’s career. Everything he’s put out until now has been intelligent, haunting and full of feeling, but to my ears, it had become saturated. It needed some warmth. With the tender touches of the ‘Enough Thunder’ EP, he moved towards it, but nothing blind-sided the listener so suddenly, so incredibly, as this distinct step forward. It’s a moment that pulls on the human anchor of the musician’s talent without ever losing its technical wonder. Suddenly, it hits.
This article was edited on the 13th February 2013 to reproduce one of the lyrics as it actually appears in the song, as opposed to how it appears in the author’s brain.