James Blake // Overgrown // April 8, 2013 // Polydor
Around the turn of the decade British dance music was getting pretty boring. Half of the population who could be bothered to care held their breath for a new Burial LP, the other shut themselves away in their own niches which were pretty much anti-unifying. Everyone was doing their own thing, trends changed every half a year and anyone who even attempted to bridge the gap between the pop charts and the warehouses was shot down with little to no remorse. Long after the regressive rock became a level playing field, dance music still stood as a environment where selling out was still a thing of reality. It’s easy too look at this today when we had Disclosure and Baauer hit the top 5, but back then things were dire. Then James Blake came along.
The London producer didn’t conform to the garage and dubstep norms that gave birth to his dance music direction. He was, first and foremost, a piano player who didn’t mind admitting his love for dance music and R&B. These experiments made up for some stellar EPs, the progression of which were concluded on Blake’s self-titled debut album. It was a watershed moment, offering the purest mixture of singer-songwriter based songs with clipping electronic textures that, two years later, have found their way into the popular conscience. Making it our album of the year was pretty easy and if we could go back in time, we’d still do the same. Now Overgrown, while dealing with the same sound palette, light R&B vocals and buzzing saw synths, is a completely different record. For what it’s worth, Overgrown is conformist. It doesn’t innovate, instead building on the songwriting basics. Overgrown is less fussy than his debut and proudly displays its stance towards simply focusing on well produced night time R&B jams. So in a way, Overgrown is better than James Blake.
Admittedly, Overgrown is a less exciting album but nevertheless, one that is very easy to love. The production, which is always detailed when it comes to this guy, is better than ever before. Until now Blake’s production business card was Klavierwerke EP, but while Overgrown’s piano tracks are closer to those of Enough Thunder, the production here is better than ever before. While there are more straightforward, still solid tracks like Overgrown, Take A Fall For Me and Our Love Comes Back, the true beauty is found in meticulously produced, hissing, feet moving ballads I Am Sold, Life Round Here and To The Last. The first single Retrograde, stands out as the most polished track out of these smooth jams. They come close to emulating the second half of Blake’s debut but here not only the production is beefier, the songwriting is fuller. The empty gaps of sound that once stood as Blake’s gimmick are now filled with detail that puts Overgrown into a obligatory headphone listen category. Some moments on here are still wasted. DLM is a lot like those half finished sketches from Blake’s debut, except here the beefier production makes this less an open ended idea and more of a unfinished song that quickly swells with a guest choir but then just fades out without a direction. Digital Lion, guest produced by Brian Eno, is another weaker moment, combining the R&B and dubstep influences. It doesn’t really shine as either of the two and the gimmicky silent bit in the middle is almost a parody of Blake’s trademark space.
Overgrown is a digital soul album, but while with every passing release Blake stands out more as a piano singer rather than laptop producer, there still are a couple of moments of dancefloor mayhem. Voyeur is simply glorious, tricking the listener into thinking that it sounds like something that could’ve been born out of Blake’s early EPs before razing the horizon with an euphoric, all absorbing drone of a klaxon. And even though we don’t usually care for deluxe editions, Overgrown is a must have because of the bonus track Every Day I Ran, a Big Boi sampling banger that fills the room with Klavierwerke’s space before setting it one fire with CMYK’s energy. While it is a conformist record that feels like it’s already reaching towards a niche and Blake’s core fans, Overgrown, song for song, is a better record than Blake’s debut. The young prince of post-dubstep he may be no more but with the increasing quality of the very basics on Overgrown, he may yet soon be the new king of dancefloor soul.