The Colour In Anything
James Blake is certainly an artist who is beloved by other artists. In the space between his first and third albums, the perennially shy producer has received a mind boggling assortment of lofty praise from high profile figures of every shape, size and genre.
One-time Queen of Pop Madonna has stated previously how she loves his work and that “his songs kill me”. Beyoncé, the current reigning titan, enlisted his expertise for her surprise drop Lemonade. The world of hip hop, of all scenes, appears particularly enamoured with the coy Londoner. Hit-maker Rick Rubin has a close working relationship, while Canada’s closest-thing-to-cool Drake has admitted that when recording Take Care, Blake’s self-titled debut was left on repeat. Kanye West once even described him as “his favourite artist” which technically means he prefers him to Kanye, which also makes it the single most glowing commendation ever uttered by anyone, ever.
Blake may be a true “musician’s musician” but general audiences don’t see the same unquestionable brilliance that his peers do. This isn’t to say he isn’t critically lauded – he’s a Mercury Prize winner – or that he doesn’t enjoy a fervent and cultish fan base, but rather the unhurried, gloom-fuelled r’n’b that he champions isn’t for everyone. Even the mopey, introspective Sir Quentin Blake-drawn cover of his third album looks like the kind of thing a semi-rebellious 15-year-old would hand up in his room while The Cure’s Disintegration plays in the background.
Anyone hoping that this latest release, The Colour In Anything, would wind up as a drastic restructuring of his sound will be sorely disappointed. His third full length shares much of the sparse atmospherics of Overgrown and his self-titled effort, and fans of those works will mostly be pleased by what’s on offer here. TCIA is an earnest, elegant yet bloated work that, if nothing else, finds Blake emerging as confident spokesman for the anxious, self-doubting generation of 21st century twenty-somethings.
Electro-pop usually conjures up dazzling synths and joyous upbeat melodies but this is another album in which Blake showcases his more morose take on the genre. The Colour In Anything is a far cry from the blissful freneticism of something like last year’s excellent Art Angels. This is electronic pop at its loosest, an endless void and wide open space that’s capable of swallowing you right up if you’re not too careful. Blake has stated in the past that D’Angelo is one of his biggest influences and it’s still very much apparent here, with his approach to song structure not unlike a neo-soul hit. At their best, these tracks share the patient pacing, rewarding hooks and stirring vocals of something like ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’. As a near 80-minute work, however, The Colour In Anything can find itself slogging along, with a sizeable chunk of those minutes wafting by like an alluring yet forgettable thrum.
The opening number happens to be a standout one. ‘Radio Silence’ has a heartbeat found in the form of its persistent, uncluttered knock of a drum, which results in the singer’s pleas coming off like revelatory beat poetry. The stirring synths swell with the emotions as Blake nakedly reveals himself to be complicit in the end of a relationship, his empathy found wanting: “I’m sorry, I don’t know how you feel / it’s hard to tell if I don’t know how you feel”. Once again it’s that haunting falsetto that proves to be the man’s most vital instrument, an emotive brush stroke colouring the spacious, desolate canvas that is his soundscape. Even when the album is at its most ponderous, like in the titular ballad, Blake’s voice, somehow both composed and near-tearful, almost always carries the material.
On ‘I Need A Forest Fire’, a song about the naïve attempt to start a fledgling relationship anew, the vocal duties are shared by another Kanye favourite; Justin Vernon. This may seem like too much white-bread indie for one track (think of it as providing two coats of beige paint when one do will just fine) but the complimentary harmonies interlock delicately, affording the eponymous chorus with a gentle sense of melancholy.
TCIA does not, however, only concern itself with relationship woes. Elsewhere, Blake finds himself struggling to cope with the new pressures of releasing work after enjoying whirlwind successes. ‘Put That Away And Talk To Me’ fizzles like a Trent Reznor film score, with the speaker begging himself to put down the joint and create, as he wonders when his “beautiful life” was supposed to start. ‘Choose Me’, meanwhile, is a gorgeous, multi-layered track that is proof that white men can have soul too.
The lengthy running time, nonetheless, can’t be said to be entirely justified. His eventual approach to the album can be summed up in the below snippet from a recent Guardian interview:
Blake’s first idea for album No 3 was to make an “outward-looking, aggressive, hip-hop-influenced record” with guest rappers including Kanye West, but he ended up using only Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, an old friend.
Maybe that recording would have been a mess, but it would have at least been a departure. The Colour In Anything is by no means a failure. It’s a sumptuous record, staggering yet staid, as breathtaking as it is bloated. Blake is immensely talented, a bona fide star, and no one can take that away from him. This album, along with the success of his last two, is at least evidence that male artists can enjoy mainstream acceptance whilst documenting big, open-hearted sentimentalism. It’s a post-808s world and he’s thriving in it.