From track one of James Blake’s self-titled debut, he proves himself to be a master knob twiddler and soulful vocalist. Choruses of digitally manipulated vocals gather, fragment and degrade on “Unluck.” The sound of water escaping pipes heralds the drop of the beat in the moody “I Mind.” And the midpoint of the album is two measures of devastating silence during his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.” In that track, as in the whole album, the dubstep wunderkind blows out the walls of his songs and presses the button just in time to deliver a catchy hook or head-nodding groove.
For those unfamiliar with his previous EPs, 2010’s Klavierwerke and CMYK, this is the first time Blake has featured his vocals to this degree. This constitutes not only a major development in the 22-year-old musician’s burgeoning career but a moment that many are describing as pop music’s incorporation of the dubstep genre, which has been gestating in the U.K. electronic underground for the last decade. Taking inspiration from Bon Iver, Blake employs his words and melodies as texture, just another tool in his kit to scaffold glitchy beats. But while Bon Iver conjures snowed-in cabins in the woods, Blake seems to be stranded in a space station mourning the estrangement from his Timbaland and Magoo CD.
He uses both his producing and vocal talents to great effect in the simultaneously moody and sultry “The Wilhelm Scream.” “I don’t know about my love,” Blake sings, “I don’t know about my loving anymore.” He doesn’t know about his dreams or his dreaming either, so it’s safe to say that the man is perplexed. The track builds around the repeated melodic theme, introduces swelling synths and drum drops that drift further into the ether, and culminates in a thick cloud of echo until, like a freak monsoon in July, the storm ends and Blake’s refrain stands alone with atmospheric drips pooling at his feet.