James Blake review, Eventim Apollo, London: An impressive return to British shores

While his latest album, a love letter to Jameela Jamil, may have divided critics, James Blake has found new confidence on stage

Al Horner
Thursday 18 April 2019 11:15
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James Blake
James Blake

“Can I get the lights up for a moment? I want to take all this in,” asks James Blake near the end of his London homecoming. It’s hard to blame him for wanting a minute to pause his set, observe the audience that’s spent the last 100 minutes greeting his sensitive electronic experiments with rapturous applause, and absorb the improbability of it all. Ten years ago this summer, the Edmonton-born, now California-based songwriter released his debut 12” record, a wispy post-dubstep throb of bass and muted beats called Air and Lack Thereof. Since then, a lot has changed for the 30-year-old.

He’s a Mercury Prize-winning star now, for a start, with four acclaimed albums of chilly keyboard melancholy behind him. The names in his phonebook are somewhat glitzier these days, too: Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of his collaborators, his track with the latter, bringing grinding synths and bassy production to Black Panther soundtrack highlight “King’s Dead”, scoring Blake his first Grammy earlier this year (Best Rap Performance).

There’s also the small matter of his newfound celebrity status. For the past four years, the songwriter has been in a relationship with T4 presenter turned sitcom star Jameela Jamil, transforming a self-described awkward and shy DJ from Enfield into unlikely Daily Mail fodder. For fans who recall his early dubstep sets in grimy, sweat-soaked clubs, it’s surreal – like finding Burial in an issue of Hello.

Jamil was the inspiration behind Assume Form, Blake’s recent fourth album and something of a sonic U-turn: out was the gloom of earlier releases, replaced by lovey slices of gleeful electronic pop romance. These songs divided fans and critics on release, but you’d never be able to tell tonight at the Eventim Apollo: the sold-out crowd sings every word to “I’ll Come Too”, “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” and “Barefoot in the Park”. Accompanied by a drummer and a multi-instrument sat behind an analogue modular synth rig so big it looks like you could launch a nuclear warhead from it, Blake even grants an outing to “Lullaby For My Insomniac” – a sleepy Valentine to Jamil, made of a cappella vocals loops that’s basically the musical embodiment of the heart-eyes emoji.

These tracks aren’t the only evidence of a new, evolved James Blake. Dressed all in black, he even steps out from behind his keyboards to greet fans at the front of the stage during moments throughout the set – not something his usually shy, retiring personality has allowed him to do previously. There’s stage banter too: “He’s an astonishing songwriter. Be sure to illegally download his album when it comes out,” he jokes of Wednesday’s opening act, London songwriter Khushi. As the set goes on, he ghosts through hits both old and new: a version of Assume Form single “Mile High” is stripped to an a cappella of Travis Scott’s spine-tingling vocals before opening out into its usual trappy production. Later, his self-titled debut album Feist cover, “Limit to Your Love”, proves as hair-raising in 2019 as it was when it gave Blake his mainstream breakthrough in 2010.

It’s an impressive return to British shores – even if the show sags a little as it wears on. Blake is an artist often dismissed as “blubstep” and “sad boy” (something’s he railed against as stigmatising male mental health issues). The fact is he closes his first decade in music as one of Britain’s most credible and prolific musical exports. As he begins his encore with a tender cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, it’s bewildering to wonder why he attracts such snobbishness, and tantalising to wonder where the next 10 years might carry him.

“Argh, I’m so English, I have to look away from any positivity like that,” he says after basking in his moment’s applause at the end of the set, his awkwardness overcoming him. A lot has changed for James Blake in his unlikely rise to near-household name status. But not everything.

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