For his sake—and for ours—it’s time to reassess James Blake. After being pronounced a genius on the strength of two prodigious singles across a pair of 2010 EPs, Blake released his self-titled debut to reactions at partisan extremes, with over-invested listeners exaggerating his talents and skeptics tearing down a very good voice and piano-driven album for failing to be a bolt of scorching brilliance.
“I don’t want to be a star/ or a stone on the shore” Blake sings on the lead and title track to his sophomore LP, Overgrown, the line reading so obvious it’s tempting not to take it at face value. Blake’s most inventive songs have toyed with musical and cultural tropes, but there doesn’t seem to be any play behind this particular phrase, coming across like a cry for help in the clichéd narrative of the very smart and charming child who lands in an elite academy for gifted students and slowly drowns—not for lack of effort or skill, but because unlike his classmates, the child doesn’t have a photographic memory or the ability to solve complex equations without pen and paper.
What Blake absolutely can do is nail at least one standout track with every release. Off the EPs that launched his career, “CMYK” dexterously staged an alley-taut standoff between samples of Kelis and Aaliyah and “I Only Know (What I Know Now)” manipulated negative space to outline a deep soul sadness. On James Blake, “The Wilhelm Scream” appropriated a Hollywood inside joke and played it balladeer-straight, alluding to a stock sound-effect for pain while baring his own precarious and bewildered vocals.
“Retrograde” earns Overgrown’s highest marks with a doo-wop clap and heartthump bass, Blake seeming to raise his hips off the piano stool and wrap himself around the song’s most impassioned notes. Like James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Measurements,” on “Retrograde” Blake risks the slenderness and vulnerability of his voice—truly attractive qualities—and then further pushes those tender edges against buzzing synths hived at the brink of dissonance. “To The Last” also finds Blake working in confident balance, tinkering out a liturgical melody on boardwalk keys while his voice soars above seagulls and waves and smothers in Tunnel-Of-Love compression.
Elsewhere, though, Overgrown is a stressful listen—not because the tracks master streetwise tension or streetlamp lonesome, but through the effect of bearing witness as the artist labors and obsesses to strain for some external measure of excellence. Throughout Overgrown, Blake electronically bulks his voice in a genuinely unbecoming fashion—while certain distortions and echoes are added for a specific sonic effect, much of the vocal enhancement comes across like a teenager pulling on three shirts, a hoodie and a parka in order to appear more broad-shouldered and imposing.
Had Blake been inclined to temper critical pressure and career anxiety into raw material, Overgrown may have evolved into something much more compelling. Instead, mistaking the volume knob for an instrument, the album uses louder/softer fades to mask dynamic limitations and muddles through overstuffed mixes. “Life Round Here” bobs in on a deft, one-handed Casio hook, alive and swinging for an engaging third before bogging down in ponderous synth treatments and upside-the-head, Daft Punk modulations. Goopy, digitized orchestrations also saturate the mid-section of “Overgrown”—exactly the overcooked effect Blake might have upended in a more agile frame of mind.
In isolation, a number of the discrete elements successfully register, such as the yo-yoing drum loop that skips through the midpoint of “Digital Lion” and the hotel-lobby piano that grounds “DLM.” But the mix rarely leaves well-enough alone, with “Digital Lion” winding toward an outro of throaty “Mmmm-hmmms” that sound like your tax-guy doing Sling Blade and the otherwise appealing “DLM” sandbagged by a backing vocal so heavily treated it’s beyond overbearing.
And then there’s “Take A Fall For Me.” Honestly, it’s difficult to fathom any rational explanation for this out-of-nowhere RZA collaboration outside of someone listening to an early mix of Overgrown and declaring that the assembled tracks were terminally lacking in star quality. RZA’s tepid flow and bars rhyming “candlelight dinners” with “fish and chips and vinegar” aren’t the worst thing the Wu-impresario has ever put his (or Bobby Digital’s) name to, but in Blake’s hands the lockdown tone that pulses through countless hip-hop tracks becomes a lugubrious diving bell, less stone cold than dull blue. Ultimately, trying to objectively assess “Take A Fall For Me” is like evaluating a walk-on cameo by the Harlem Globetrotters—the point really isn’t whether Curly or Sweet Lou came through with a passable performance, but rather the level of desperation that led to the stunt-casting in the first place.
Losing the ability to distinguish good ideas from bad tends to be a sign it’s time to go back to the basics. For Blake, those foundations still remain underdeveloped: he hasn’t grown enough as a lyricist to carry his piano-based compositions, and as a producer, he’s shown a more stylish hand with diva turns and silence than his own voice. Moving forward, he doesn’t need to be a star or a stone on the shore—there’s a world of space between.