James Blake has never been one to fear the unknown. On his 2011 self-titled debut, he saw the mortality of dubstep, understanding that it was a genre rife with limitations and a definite chance of fading away. For Blake, he saw this as an opportunity to explore the boundaries of dubstep-style production. It was a leap of faith. While other artists were going in the direction of assaulting, grandiose production, Blake took the style and minimized it. By removing the trivial bombastic exterior, he was able to emphasize the underlying beauty. What came of it was something wholly unique, a beautifully crafted exploration in unfamiliar territory. It felt foreign, yet it also felt assured and purposeful. Blake, it seems, finds comfort in this. With Overgrown, his sophomore album, he once again looks towards the unexplored. Embracing elements of R&B, hip-hop and pop, sounds once separate from the name James Blake have been thoughtfully interwoven amongst his post-dubstep sensibilities. This is how Blake thrives.
Overgrown begins with the titular track, perhaps the most evocative of Blake’s traditional piano-driven sound. While it is familiar, it is also symbolic of his changing philosophy. No longer does Blake rely on the absence of sound to evoke atmosphere. Instead, “Overgrown” develops deep, rich sounds that build and layer to create atmosphere. It forms slowly, adding subtle strings around static bass and striking piano chords. It is not long before Blake’s vocals are met with lush, encompassing instrumentation. It is haunting and beautiful. It feels well crafted and deliberate. The following track, “I Am Sold,” achieves the same effect, as Blake is always building towards something. There is the ever-present sense of a growing atmosphere. “Retrograde” is perhaps the best-executed example of this. It quickly escalates, employing hazy synthesizers that elevate to a claustrophobic climax. The effect is overwhelming and unforgettable.
It is truly remarkable what Blake achieves atmospherically throughout Overgrown. “Voyeur” simply astonishes, calmly drifting for the first minute with heartfelt vocals and the constant thud of a bass drum. What follows, though, is fantastic. Leaning more towards a house track the song gains a quick tempo, employing a four on the floor mentality. It thuds along, sending shivers down your spine with sporadic piano samples, droning synthesizers and Blake’s repeating vocals. “Digital Lion” sees Blake working with Brian Eno, and the two masterfully draw you into an eerie soundscape. Throbbing basslines push you deeper and deeper into their synthesized environment, but it is the ever-changing atmosphere that really stands out. New sounds creep into your eardrums constantly, with each minute sounding slightly different than the last. The rich ambience is powerful, and both Eno and Blake are in their element here.
As captivating as it is to hear Blake in his element, it is when he steps outside of it that he truly excites. To much surprise “Take a Fall For Me” sees Blake’s soundscape met with the verses of RZA. It is a pairing that at first seems unfitting, but any doubt will quickly disperse after one listen. Blake develops a dark, dingy beat around RZA’s lyrics, yet he adds an element of humanity to it. The production evokes affection amidst haunting piano keys and distorted undertones, perfectly complementing the longing words spoken by RZA. These hip-hop elements can also be found on “Life Round Here.” The mellow combination of hi-hats and drumbeat are immediately familiar, akin to hip-hop beats of the ‘90s. What surrounds this is far from hip-hop, though. An echoing synthline pulsates throughout as Blake’s helplessness pours through his lyrics, quickly climaxing in gritty, distorted synths before slowly fading. The result is amazing. It just works. Similarly, “To the Last” accomplishes a seamless melding of R&B and ambient production. Blake’s voice is given free reign here, and he gracefully explores the whole soundscape. It captures the emotional longing and simplicity of an R&B song, yet does so with a sheen of atmosphere. At the core of this is Blake, and his vocals carry so much weight. It is truly remarkable, much like Overgrown as a whole.
Overgrown does not dwell, it is not an album lost in its own thoughts but rather evocative of the transient nature of life. Blake embraces the unknown. He explores territory that he may not be comfortable with, but it is in the very process of exploring that he becomes comfortable. Yet, he does not bask in this comfort, instead pressing forward to even more unknowns. Overgrown is the result of his explorations, the things he discovered and became comfortable with, but perhaps he has already moved beyond this. Life is not permanent and it does not sit still for long. Neither does James Blake. He has never been one to fear the unknown.