James Blake has always been somewhat of a musical dichotomy. Since his debut release nearly four years ago, Blake has been carefully straddling the line between the UK post-dubstep scene and his own pop music leanings, a feat evidenced by arguably his most popular single to date, the wobbly, earth-shaking remake of Feist’s “Limit To Your Love.” With his second full-length album, Overgrown, the English phenom combines his innate soul sensibility and his origins in downtempo production for a result that is both more organic and cohesive than his 2011 self-titled debut LP but lacks its abstract intrigue.
Blake’s trademark crooning carries the first three songs on the album, a beautiful and stunning run of tracks that meticulously navigates emotional peaks and troughs. The title track builds to a supremely satisfying sweeping synth finish. The follow-up “I Am Sold” delicately plays with the line, “Speculate how we feel,” warping it with vocal filters to great effect. “Life Round Here” makes sonic references to Aaliyah’s smooth R&B melodies.
Then, out of nowhere, Blake is abruptly interrupted by RZA on the dark hip-hop backdrop of “Take A Fall For Me,” an awkward break in the album’s flow but an interesting one nonetheless. Some will see the inclusion of the Wu-Tang legend as a mark of the singer’s rising stock; others will see it as a serious misstep in an otherwise solid set of tracks. Either way, the anomaly is quickly forgotten among the likes of lead singles and synth masterpieces “Retrograde” and “Digital Lion,” the latter of which features the much more welcome inclusion of ambient music forefather Brian Eno.
The album is a moving, sometimes surprisingly aggressive and exciting experience (the repeated refrain of “Voyeur” eventually becomes a dubby club banger). Yet, for all of its merits, the oddly unique production style of his debut is mostly absent. The choice to move toward a more unified R&B sound is an honorable one, but like watching a bird leave the nest, James Blake’s growth as an artist is bittersweet.
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