For our albums of 2011, we decided to pick 12 records (one for each day of Christmas, month of the year and inch on a vinyl album) that, for us, stretched pop music. We wanted a set of records that, more than any others, reshaped the album, pushed the form and did that old thing of encapsulating the moment and aspiring to the ages.
We will be presenting one a day, chronologically, for the next 12 working days, and we kick off with James Blake’s divisive debut.
Easily one of the most hyped UK albums of 2011, James Blake’s self-titled debut is as confounding and thrilling now as it was on first leaked listen a year ago. In fact, free from the fug of hype fallout, it stands even taller. Here are eleven songs, ten if you count Lindesfarne I and II as two sides of the same coin, that show an artist pushing himself, the music he loves and the listener’s ears to an explorative extreme.
Extreme is no overstatement: Blake’s debut is both intensely strange and deeply rebellious. Anonymity has long been the currency of underground dance music yet here is a darling of said scene standing head and shoulders, in every sense, above the rest and daring to do the unspeakable: give his music a voice and face.
And what a voice: deep, fraught and instantly resonant. Blake could have churned out a bunch of bassline ballads without breaking a sweat. But that would have been all too easy and James Blake – the album and the man – likes to be difficult, for there’s much greater reward to be reaped in necessitating a closer listen, a lean in to understand.
Fostering that emotional energy is Blake’s greatest skill. He ricochets the sparsest of abstract sonic elements off one another to tease open spaces that hum and bristle with recognition. His lyrics take a poetic rather than narrative form, meditations on emotion that resonant because of, not despite, the cloudiness of their meaning; ambiguity leaving room for the listener to imprint their own meaning.
While dubstep birthed it, ‘James Blake’ actually has just as much in common with folk music, that most open source of pre-internet music – songs that were shared, altered, passed down. Blake’s story telling carries many pastoral themes (Measurements, Lindesfarne I and II), is more allegorical than autobiographical (I Never Learnt To Share) and, as is the folk tradition, occasionally embroiders existing tales, making them his own (The Whilhelm Scream, Limit To Your Love).
Above all, as he makes patently clear on I Mind, ‘James Blake’ is the sound of Blake minding, giving enough of a shit to stay stubbornly single-minded in the pursuit of articulating his own truth – and challenging the established patterns and universal truths of popular music along the way.