Album review: James Blake, Overgrown (Atlas)

Album of the Week: Grown-up grooves make Blake a key mover again

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The Independent Culture

Having placed highly in the BBC's Sound of 2011 poll with his blend of glitchy electronica and fragile soul stylings, James Blake was rightly criticised for the lack of memorable songs on his titular debut album.

On Overgrown, he addresses that situation with some success, sculpting his skeletal pulses and ghostly palimpsests of piano chords into more persuasive structures that allow his airy, melismatic falsetto to soar freely, knowing that when it touches down again, the security of melody and rhythm will be waiting.

The improvement is most noticeable in “Retrograde”, where his fluting voice doubles up for a hummed melody over a slick handclap groove, as he advises a lover to ignore all others: “You're on your own in a world you've grown.”

It's the best thing he's done, closely followed by the album's bookending tracks “Overgrown” and “Our Love Comes Back”. The latter offers a slow, sensuous development of his core style, the glitchy bed decorated with piano chords and what sounds like a breath of harmonium, all held together by a simple syndrum figure, over which he keens gently. “I Am Sold”, “Voyeur” and “To the Last” further track the twists of his emotional state over ticking drum-programmes, warm synth buzzes and, on the latter, what sounds like a sample of sheep.

Following his collaboration with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on the Enough Thunder EP, a couple more guests are involved on Overgrown, with Brian Eno adding to the swirl and scudding groove of the mantra-like “Digital Lion”, and Wu Tang's RZA adding a rap to “Take a Fall for Me”, whose single-note riff, scratchy backdrop and sampled vocal wail conjure a sense of stasis strongly reminiscent of RZA's own productions.

“Overgrown” itself, meanwhile, offers the album's most mature lyrical reflection, Blake observing, “I don't want to be a star, but a stone on the shore.”

Clearly, he's set on playing the long game, letting time work its magic on his talent rather than frittering it away in hasty pursuit of the brass ring. And if he continues this rate of development, who knows what he might achieve?

Download: Retrograde; Overgrown; Our Love Comes Back; Digital Lion