If James Blake emerged as one of the leading lights of the post-dubstep world in 2009 and 2010, his potential came with a price. After his breakthrough CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs in 2010, it was almost as if the future of electronic music was resting on his shoulders. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but there were some pretty heavy expectations for his first full-length and depending on who you ask, he either met them with ease or he fell far short. Needless to say, his 2011 self-titled debut ended up being a fairly divisive record, impressing many while causing several others to throw up their hands with bewilderment regarding the buzz that surrounded it (indeed, there were differing opinions among the writers on this very site). Just to the record is set straight so there’s no confusion as to what side of the fence I sat on, I was clearly one of the former. While the album found Blake approaching electronic music from more of the perspective of a balladeer than in the past, I found it to be a stirring, sometimes disorienting set of songs. His style is truly singular and it’s one that Blake doesn’t intend to give up, at least not for his sophomore effort Overgrown.
If many of the same synth patches, sounds and vocal tricks we’ve come to expect from Blake are ever present here, the album is certainly not a redux of the debut. The moans that open the record may not suggest much, but give it just a few seconds. By the time the beat kicks in, the album is well on its way. The infectious opening title track sets the nocturnal tone that the majority of the record inhabits. Immediately it’s striking just how many embellishments are eventually introduced, peaking with a stirring string section.
In the past, the sounds and instruments that Blake included in a given mix may have been purposeful, but they weren’t always the most logical decisions. That was part of the appeal of his music. Here, the arrangements seem to be driven by the song rather than the other way around. As it turns out, this is an inspired decision. As demonstrated by the mid-album stunner and lead single “Retrograde,” Blake gets a lot of mileage out of the sparseness the song’s first half, allowing the bare emotion to be put on stark display. It also makes the barrage of synths that threaten overtake the song’s climax that much more cathartic. Throughout the record, Blake balances an evocative sparseness with some of the lushest arrangements of his career to date. If the more conventional song structures suggest Blake has grown less adventurous, they certainly serve the songs well.
Even if the album is not the most the accessible music you’re likely to hear this year, it’s simply more immediate than anything Blake has given us in the past. On Overgrown Blake has somehow managed to take all of the strengths of its predecessor and improve upon them with an even stronger set of songs. Even the spare piano ballad “DLM,” although reminiscent of “Give Me My Month,” has better melodies and more creative harmonies. Even a curious guest spot from RZA, which, granted, feels a little out of place here, comes across as less of a misstep over time. I can’t say whether or not Overgrown will appease Blake’s detractors, but as far as this writer is concerned, it’s as good of a record as could reasonably be asked for.