As a 22-year-old in early 2011, James Blake became a cult hero in indie and electronic circles thanks to his eponymous, virtuosic and genre-bending debut album. He was a producer at the bleeding edge of syncopated electronic music who also happened to be a classically trained pianist with the voice of a choir lead. Two years later with the release of sophomore effort “Overgrown,” out Tuesday (Apr. 9) on Republic Records, Blake’s gone from cult fixation to mainstream boy wonder. But with the increased profile comes increased pressure. Can he replicate the “wow” factor of his left-field debut? Is that even a reasonable expectation?
Not unlike Kanye West after “The College Dropout,” Blake takes a left turn with “Overgrown” and embraces a love for beautiful chords and moody atmospherics. It’s a more consistent album than his debut — for better and for worse. As a collection of songs, “Overgrown” finds a downbeat pulse that rarely fluctuates. It simmers without ever quite coming to a boil.
Check out our track-by-track breakdown of James Blake’s highly anticipated sophomore album:
1. “Overgrown” – Blake sets the tone for the album right from the start with the title track. This song is a litmus test: if you can’t find your way into the tonal shifts and warm, woozy vocal croon on display here, your rewards on the subsequent nine songs will be few and far between.
2. “I Am Sold” – “I Am Sold” opens as a piano-based showcase for Blake’s voice, a one-two combination that we’ll see deployed repeatedly as the album goes on. But about a third of the way through, the song shifts into something more beat-focused and complex. Deep bass, sub-bass and a soft drum loop give the song a pulse that allows for head nodding to begin in earnest.
3. “Life Round Here” – The most immediately radio-ready tune on the album. Expect your favorite indie rapper to rip the suave opening synth loop on his or her next mixtape. Blake works the beat with aplomb, stripping away the synths and leaving the persistent click clack of the drums; pulling back the drums and letting the synths go haywire.
4. “Take a Fall for Me” (feat. RZA) – Blake is a producer first, both literally (he released three instrumental EPs before revealing he could sing) and constitutionally. So it’s easy to see why RZA would be near the top of his list of dream collaborators. Here the Wu-Tang sensei’s signature rap stylings are the focus: RZA waxes poetic about unrequited love, while Blake patiently constructs a minimalist, haunted beat around him.
It may not have made noise on the Hot 100, but make no mistake, “Retrograde” is a breakthrough record. The single’s hummed melody and future-soul production won Blake a whole new audience, evoking a striking composition of one part D’Angelo and one part, well, himself. The Byrne-esque exclamation “Suddenly I’m hit!” followed by a repeated, seductive plea to “Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now” are highwater marks for Blake as a songwriter as opposed to being merely a (great) producer.
6. “DLM” – Blake’s peak vocal performance to date is the piano-only, goosebump-inducing cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” from his late 2011 EP “Enough Thunder.” “DLM” is essentially an attempt at recreating the magic of that song, but this time with Blake’s own lyrics and production.
7. “Digital Lion”
Where do you go if you’re a moody young producer and you’ve already used one of your album’s only two collaborations scoring the RZA? You head toward the father of ambient music, of course. This Brian Eno co-production makes for the album’s most mercurial and disorienting five minutes, and is difficult to shake when it’s over.
8. “Voyeur” – “Voyeur” is yet another sly genre inversion, opening up with the plink of piano keys and that familiar romantic croon before morphing into what is essentially Blake’s version of a Detroit house jam. The cowbell kicks in at the 1:10 mark, and although they start out low in the mix, there are actually sirens on this song. James Blake dance party?
9. “To the Last” – This is basically a wedding song, complete with an opening chorus of bells and proclamations of never-ending love. The extended falsetto on the hook evokes Hercules and Love Affair at that group’s most sanguine.
10. “Our Love Comes Back” – The album ends not with a bang but a whimper — even in context, “Our Love Comes Back” is spare and somnambulant, consisting in parts of a mere strum of bass and a blooping sound that brings to mind an analog TV shutting off.