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James Blake - Overgrown (Review)

James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake - Overgrown

Critics have made up a new label – PBR&B – to describe the music of artists as diverse as Frank Ocean, How to Dress Well, Miguel, The Weeknd, Drake, Theophilus London, Jhené Aiko, and James Blake.

But what exactly is PBR&B? Well, it’s an abbreviation for “Pabst Blue Ribbon Rhythm and Blues” and stands for music that incorporates an eclectic mix of – yes, more labels are headed your way – EDM, rock, hip hop, and R&B.

As a native Milwaukeean, I’m sort of proud that a beer that originated in my hometown has somehow become linked to the subculture associated with the above-mentioned musicians – although I haven’t seen many PBR drinkers around town grooving to How to Dress Well (AC/DC, Aerosmith, and the like seem to quench their collective thirst more).

I can’t even imagine Frank Ocean – who, as he told The Quietus, considers himself a singer-songwriter first and foremost – knocking back a Tall Boy before he sat down to compose a single note from his wonderful LP, channel ORANGE.

It’s also unimaginable to think that equally eclectic musicians from The Beatles to Outkast, from Reznor to Prince, were gulping down PBR to find the inspiration to record Sgt. Pepper, Stankonia, The Downward Spiral, and Sign ‘O’ the Times.

These records – and James Blake’s tremendous new album, Overgrown – demonstrate that great musicians have always had a diversity of sounds swirling around in their magical minds. It’s this swirl that produces the songs we love. It’s this swirl that allows them, as Ocean reminds us, to be singer-songwriters that touch our souls and not the flag-bearers for divisive labels.

And, as Overgrown and 2011’s James Blake attest, Blake is that most rare breed of singer-songwriters – one who seems fully formed on arrival. In fact, Overgrown is so accomplished – so musically layered, beautiful, and lyrically compelling – that it’s easy to forget that it’s only his second album.

Part of the proof for my claim derives from the geniuses who make guest appearances on the album. Brian Eno produces “Digital Lion” – the only track here that Blake doesn’t produce himself. Blake’s composition begins with synth washes that can only be described as Eno-esque (listen to “Becalmed” from his Another Green World or anything from his recent Lux and you’ll get the gist), but they soon accompany marshal beats, over which Blake moans atmospherically and sings the occasional lyric. This is experimental music at its finest – it’s no wonder that Eno was intrigued.

A second genius – Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA – shows up on “Take a Fall for Me.” Blake’s minimalistic keyboards, beats, and melodic vocal line back RZA’s emotional rap. As RZA wonders, “What will become of me / If I can’t show my love to thee,” the track climaxes in emotional longing.

Blake fares just as well when he’s on his own. He – like Ocean in particular – thrives on earnestness, introspection, and a willingness to quote his heart. His music and lyrics work in perfect concert to bare his soul. The gospel-tinged vocals at the beginning of first single “Retrograde” don’t even need words to reveal the singer’s pain. These vocals function in the song as a loop that – along with a simple keyboard figure and beat – backs Blake as he pleads with a lover to “be the girl [she] loved.” By the time the soaring synths enter, the song has become a song of intense sexual desire.

Opening track “Overgrown” delivers the album’s themes – both lyrically and musically. The first lines – “And I want you to know / I took you with me / That when things are thrown away like they are daily / Time passes in the constant state” – indicate Blake’s interest in intimately communicating with his listeners, of making philosophical statements about the relationship between one’s perception of time and one’s feelings. And the backing keyboard chords, beat, and synth strings contribute both simplicity and emotion – which allows the listener to focus on Blake’s poetic lyricism.

A monumental musical accomplishment by any stretch of the imagination, Overgrown deserves to be this year’s channel ORANGE. It’s sincerity, introspection, thoughtfulness, and musical and vocal performance are a heartfelt rarity in contemporary music.

On album closer “Our Love Comes Back,” Blake sings, “Everyone’s a writer.” Well, he’s one of the best – and I bet you’ll be too caught up in Overgrown when you have your first listen even to think about popping open a PBR Tall Boy.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

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