James Blake vs. The Machine


The first most non-geeks heard of James Blake was in October, when he flayed a Feist deep cut, stuffed it with dubstep’s dank sub-bass, and left the seams raw and exposed. On one hand, his “Limit to Your Love” was a public capstone for a year in which Blake curated three EPs of his itchy, precocious electronic music for an audience of rock critics and beat-mining head-nodders. But it also provided evidence that this otherwise private kid had his fair share of entrepreneurial aptitude. Blake’s cover might be bleak as hell, but it’s also very tasteful.

So it goes for his eponymous debut LP, released by A&M and with “Limit” as its centerpiece: He’s an art-world darling letting his machines get the best of him. And as if Metacritic hadn’t already cleared space in the 90-plus-trophy case and the Mercury Prize committee hadn’t already started engraving his name on the trophy, turns out he’s got soul, too.

There are plenty of precedents for what Blake does, none closer than British r&b bot Jamie Lidell, who convincingly channeled his glitchy work with Christian Vogel under the Super Collider moniker into a glossy Otis Redding pastiche on 2005’s Multiply. An equally proud bedroom cyborg but much less of a show-off, Blake echoes the moment where soul music’s existential torture overlapped with (and in some ways, predicted) the impending introspection of early-’70s singer-songwriters. Like Redding’s tragic swan song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” or Joni Mitchell’s breakup opus Blue, Blake’s debut is the sound of reaching emotional limits and dwelling on them.

But Blake’s no simple nostalgist or sad-sack single. He uses his singing voice—a tiny, fragile thing from which he wrings a good deal of feeling—to re-create the idea of a dusty old soul sample by conjuring the feeling of a brooding, inebriated late-night train ride home. “I don’t know about my dreams,” he croons in his boyish near-falsetto. “All that I know is that I’m fallin’, fallin’, fallin’.” Electronic noise gradually overtakes him, until he pulls the plug with 20 seconds remaining. I don’t get the sense he’s exactly put off by the intrusion.

Instead, I suspect he’s worried about where he’d end up if he let that noise spin on infinitely. James Blake‘s most compelling moments come when you can’t tell where he stops and the machines begin. “Lindesfarme I” could superficially be called a cappella, but his plaintive, impossible-to-parse utterances have their own robotic accompaniment built right in; “Lindesfarme II” retains the robo-vocals but seamlessly adds acoustic guitar to the mix. Your move, Bon Iver.

Kid A is almost 11, after all, and here he suffers his first broken heart and retreats to patch up, to re-solder some wires. “I wish I could know,” Blake moans, “How easy it was to care like you”; the homemade servo motor revs back to life for a few fleeting seconds on the word “care,” and the music actually resembles dubstep for a bit while cracking my own cold heart with such a naïvely sweet sentiment. And that second voice that cuts in—is that a live interlocutor or a memory? Who knows? Either way, 2011 will be hard pressed to produce a more bizarre duet.

James Blake’s gadgets are restless. He reins them in, twists them into new shapes, sometimes just toggles them off. But mostly, he sets them free. Listen to how they take over “I Never Learnt to Share” and “Unluck,” independent of immediately recognizable musical form or authorial intent, spreading seemingly without pattern, creeping and covering the composition like time-lapse moss on a headstone. We’ve become very accommodating of sad, nostalgic robots singing to us over the past couple decades. Blake’s major-label debut comes from a different angle, perhaps: What does it sound like when humans sing the songs of machines?