James Blake paints with moody, mature palette on new album

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What began as radio silence became watercolors instead.

Initially titled Radio Silence, James Blake’s highly anticipated third album The Colour in Anything finds Blake at his most mature, stripped of pretense and painting honest portraits of his maturation into adult life through adult love.

In the past few years, James Blake has been receiving a great deal of outspoken respect from his contemporaries, with the likes of Madonna and Kanye West naming Blake among their favorite modern pop artists. After Blake and Beyonce worked one-on-one in the studio, she granted him a track of his own on her latest visual album Lemonade — at the heartbreaking spiritual and political apex, no less.

Still, since his 2013 sophomore ambient-R&B triumph Overgrown, Blake himself has remained largely silent. The last three years of his career were speckled with the quiet release of the 200 Press EP of experimental deep tracks of electronica and spoken word, a BBC Radio residency and a few tour dates with his 1-800-Dinosaur crew. The abrupt release of The Colour in Anything finally finds Blake once again in the spotlight, with a lot to show from his years in the industry.

As consistently fickle as James Blake’s muse has been over his career, his newest album, The Colour in Anything — a wide-ranging 17-track 75-minute meander featuring collaboration from the likes of Frank Ocean and Rick Rubin — still surprises as one of his most variable in personality from track to track. Bare piano ballads and ambient post-dub electronica tracks ooze and crawl of their own volition through the album’s progression. Still, each idiosyncratic piece stems from the same moody, flowery wellspring of Blake’s distinct vision, leading to a cohesive whole.

Blake’s iconic early career production  — squishy, jagged and deconstructed only to be built back into his confounding electronic symphonies — can be seen in kind across this record. In style and in form, one can hear Love What Happened Here in “Two Men Down,” CMYK in “Radio Silence” and The Bells Sketch in “Points.” His production choices have become his iconography, with sound palettes from the isolated worlds of his early output weaving into his music so consistently that they’ve become ingrained in his lexicon, intentionally or not.

Though his signature then inevitably runs the risk of becoming stale, Blake’s sound instead mutates into itself in this work, budding new growth from spliced atrophies of Blake’s studied brushstrokes. New color blendings of old compositional choices feel familiar, but still they find ways to serve fresh forms of the kind of atypical musical agitations that Blake is known for.

At the core of almost every track on The Colour in Anything is a slow build to emotional and musical climax, indicative of Blake’s roots in the climax-heavy genres of R&B and dubstep. Electronic soundscapes build toward final massive summits as the intensity of Blake’s soulful voice reaches critical mass.

“I Need a Forest Fire,” James Blake’s latest musical collaboration with creatively star-crossed confederate Bon Iver, emerges as a highlight track, with both artists bringing out each other’s most surreal inclinations. Just like “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” the pair’s first release together, this track features breathtaking lyrical imagery of the natural world and a tight cocoon of unidentifiable symphonic fusions. With scattered, Cummings-esque delivery of beautifully layered lines of surrealist poetry about creative destruction and new growth, each artist’s multitude of layered voices swells together, licking up like flames through the carefully painted forest floor of suffocated drum sequences and high leafy canopy of electronic Disney-style woodwinds.

Voices in The Colour in Anything are used as just another paintbrush in the process, with Blake’s deep, impenetrable timbre manipulated and layered below the surface along with fluid crests of exultant horns and amorphous rumbling bass. While his production may be undeniably brilliant, as usual, Blake’s elegant, rich voice lends emotional impact to each track.

The album’s soft watercolor cover, painted by Roald Dahl illustrator Sir Quentin Blake, and the title of the album itself, The Colour in Anything, invite the listener to imagine his music itself as a sonic painting. Throughout the album, he constantly expresses the sentiment that, as he mourns in closing track “Meet You in the Maze,” “music can’t be everything.”

With each brushstroke, James Blake seems to have painted his own version of a visual album.  

Contact Justin Knight at [email protected].