Published Apr 29, 2013When James Blake's self-titled 2011 debut eschewed the post-dubstep of The Bells Sketch and CMYK, the two EPs that made his name a year earlier, he was met with considerable backlash. James Blake was delicate, electronic-based singer-songwriter fare, chopped into oblivion and spread over beats that resembled those found on his earlier work in timbre and sub-bass depth only, never in tempo. It was a unique, beguiling release, but fans of his dub-y early work were not impressed by the perceived banality of more straightforward (relatively speaking) songs like "The Wilhelm Scream" and a cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love," two of the album's singles.
Maybe that's why Blake says he's simultaneously "terrified and surprised and happy" with the release of his sophomore album, Overgrown. Surprised, "because people seem to like it." Those expecting Blake to return to the sound he pioneered on CYMK will be sorely disappointed by Overgrown, not that he cares; his mission for the album was to write better songs that, like "The Wilhelm Scream" and "Limit To Your Love," would stick in fans' heads. It's brimming with them — "Life Round Here" is an updated "Wilhelm Scream," with a squelching bass line and tick-tock digital snares around which Blake weaves a yearning, curlicue vocal take and "Our Love Comes Back" is a wistful piano ballad, chopped and gently screwed to perfection. "Retrograde," the album's R&B-influenced first single built on a hummed vocal theme, is not only one of the best tunes he's written, it's also the song that, according to Blake, "represents me most on the record."
Getting to this point wasn't easy. "This time around, I did feel the pressure a lot more," he explains. "Suddenly, I needed more songs like 'Limit to Your Love,' or 'Wilhelm Scream,' and nobody held back in telling me that." It was Blake's father, James Litherland — a soft rock performer and songwriter whose "Where to Turn," was the original inspiration for "Wilhelm" — who pointed out to him that his two best-known songs to date were written by others. "That pissed me off," admits Blake. "I'm sitting there going, 'So what is a song? How do I even write a song? I don't know.' I didn't know before that and I certainly didn't know then. So what do I do?"
The answer, he says, was to "keep writing" in order to "figure it out for myself and do it in time for the next record to come out," despite coming back from his lengthy year and a half of touring feeling tapped out. Touring, he says, "is shifting sands: you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are, sometimes. I felt like an empty shell at the end of it, like I didn't have anything more. I needed to sit at home and think about what I'd done, and go through and rationalize it. Now I'm at home, and all the journeys and long-distance and all that has ended now, and I can figure out what to do with my life."
Feeling burnt-out from touring was compacted by the fact that he was expected to immediately churn out a follow-up to James Blake, a task he might not have been up to had he not found inspiration in a new relationship. "You're plonked back on the other side of the tunnel, and you're expected to write another album," he says. "At that point, what do you write about? If I hadn't fallen in love, really for the first time, then I don't know what I would have written about."
Detractors have pinned Blake as sentimental, but though he embraces his sensual side more than ever on Overgrown, he never veers into tacky clichés. "There's always a slight skirting around the point. I might address [love] contextually, or in an abstract way, but if I was to just put those concepts into basic terms, it wouldn't really be a very good song."
Blake is too cerebral and too deliberate in his musical decision-making to sacrifice his dedication to pushing boundaries just because he's writing more memorable melodies and songs. The difference in approach, for him, between the two albums is simply writing versus writing songs. "I suppose, in some way, everything [I've done] is a song," he figures. "You've got things that repeat, and chords, and structures. But to find a sweet spot where you're making things that are interesting but they also resonate with people, that's the Holy Grail. I was trying to work at that."
Overgrown is not a particularly "easy" album. Alongside more immediately pleasing fare like "Retrograde" and "Our Love Comes Back" are the flickering, slow-burning hip-hop of "Take A Fall For Me" (featuring a dark, passionate verse from Wu-Tang Clan's RZA), the house-indebted cowbell clatter of "Voyeur," and minimalist synth ode "Digital Lion" (co-written by Brian Eno), all of which evince Blake's uncompromising, constantly-expanding sonic oeuvre.
Ultimately, he says, "the music is what I think about first, and I see where it takes me. If it takes me to a certain stage at Glastonbury, then that's just how it is. It might take me to a stage playing to fewer people, and if that's the case, cool."
Blake is proud of Overgrown, and his improved songwriting abilities, which he feels "just got there in time," and he's got "nothing" to say to those who are stuck in a sound he's moved beyond. "As with any music, there might be ten million people who don't like it," he explains, "but any type of music you make, there are going to be some people who do. As long as you approach it with mind to moving people in some way, then if it moves you, it will move people."