You can always tell you’ve seen a great movie when it lingers on in the depths of your mind afterward. Conversely, you can be duped into thinking a movie was good, but then only later to find out that it leaves you with the feeling of the orgasm you get after a week of over-masturbation. It fizzles after the fact, you’re left with translucent blanks when you ponder about it, it ultimately is expendable. Going back to the feeling of a good movie, you may or may not have been satisfied watching it and even feel that way during the immediate period afterwards pissing on a urinal cake, hell you could’ve thought it was lackluster and boring. But somehow, you remember certain moments about it vividly, the movie formulates into images that feel permanently tatted into your consciousness. I think this interminable image formulation experience can also be applied to music and most especially to James Blake’s debut LP.
Bickering shrieks of disgust filled the internet air upon its leak, “why did he sing?!” “Where is the magic that was in CMYK?!”, I had one friend tell me that it was BES aka Boring Electronic Shit. And I have to admit, I was not expecting Mr. Blake to sing during the entire album, nor for it to be at times so spare that your critical mind can’t justify it being anything particularly special. As some of us know, in an interview Blake said his influence with this album was from Joni Mitchell and other singer songwriters whose music’s power comes from the tender intimacy of the human voice. There are songs which are clear evidence of this notion like the dual split of “Lindesfarne” and “Give Me My Month” which finds Blake crooning over organic instrumentation, which are gorgeous with his syrupy vocals sometimes coaxed in vocoder for added cool beans effect. These stretches of what my friend would call BES are what would detract some listeners who have been fans of his past work. But if you consider how these ultra minimal passages of songwriting affect the entire patchwork of the album, haters would think again. At gut level, these songs are what gives the album that lingering after effect I was talking about by complementing its more sensational parts, giving it the subdued counterbalance that helps the memory from being overcrowded, and you’re left with absolutely unforgettable resonance that will last.
Where movies congregate into images that stick with you, here it is musical moments that throb at you, sounds that become aural apparitions that haunt you, feelings that have been transported brilliantly from the artist to the observer. The naked nature of his influence is also applied to his signature electronic leanings. I’ve always thought of Blake as someone who doesn’t take any little thing like a single note or sound he decides to put into a song for granted. Most artists don’t even think about using silence as a weapon, for Blake it is not just the mere absence of notes, but a half glass full mindset where the silence has a bloodline of its own, exhaling patiently and making sure the next thing you hear, you fucking hear. Bass is something shitty electronic artists use to make up for their shortcomings and they abuse it. In the Feist re-imagination of “Limit to Your Love”, bass feels like it was born and heard for the very first time, like when God created Earth and for Blake he does not take fundamental components such as bass as givens to shake romps, and here it feels like it soaks up all the energy in a room right before it hits and when it does drop, it makes 9/11 look like a fender bender. Other highlights like “I Never Learnt to Share” has meticulously expanded layers of Blake’s vocals of a lyrical mantra and sends it spiraling into a final minute frenzy of exploding drillbits and high pressured synths; “To Care (Like You)” has Blake’s vocals dancing with an array of different types of manipulations of his vox, almost sounding like he recruited a backup singer, mixed with perfectly timed bass thumps cueing in a fluttering motif of trickling marimba-like percussion.
The album’s most magical moment though, its centerpiece or star of the show if it must have one, goes to “The Wilhelm Scream”. Blake being very young, there’s always that proclivity of youngn’s to go into some kind of dark territory to cry out to the world that they are passionate lonely individuals who have pain in their soul. You know that umpteen year old feeling where you feel like acting suicidal, depressed or weird makes you stand out or having that trait will get you noticed from other people, eventually they will feel you man, FEEL you. It’s pretty embarrassing because I remember exactly acting like that for a period in my very own adolescence. But there’s something very beautiful about going through that, on those car rides home at night, that state of vulnerability that puts you in a position where you can effortlessly drop a tear, hell some of us still go through that. And there’s always a song or musical moment that can trigger that descent into deep despair, and acts as the tipping point to incandescent bodily and spiritual chills. Wilhelm Scream is the new unparalleled champion to evoke these feelings, starting off as a slow finger snapping timbalandesque r&b jam and progresses into an overpowering clash of synths and ghostly echoing reverb that comes together into an engulfing experience that would make it impossible for any living soul to not get neck tingling shivers anytime you listen to it. The lyrics are youthfully simple, inwardly deep but outwardly unsophisticated, but all the more genuine for it. “I don’t know about my dreams, I don’t know about my dreamin anymore, all that I know is that I’m fallin fallin fallin, might as well fall in”. There’s a part of us that sits up high on a mountaintop and we want to fall all the way down, and when we reach to the ground we want to fall down even further and further, deeper and deeper without impact, just falling down in a never-ending euphoric suspension.
High expectations will always cloud around the most hyped about artist of the time, and with James Blake, there was no exception. The best thing to do is ignore what others think you ought to be and concentrate on whatever feels honest and right to your creative being. There is a very personal driving force that belies this album that makes it more poignant and altogether much better than albums that aspire to be perfect and masterpieces, most of which are just conforming to pre-established principles of what is supposed to be a masterpiece. This certainly is not a masterpiece, but what it is, is a true expression of what Blake is all about, the feelings he wishes to pass to us at this very moment in his life, and not one ounce or single droplet of true honesty is gone to waste.