It's strange now to think of the time when dubstep was the cutting edge of music, with two opposing conceptions of it fighting over its soul. There was a hyper kinetic tooth-pulling dance noise led by a guy with long hair on one side, and then there was music that sounded like a long nap. At least, that's how critics and fans described it if they weren't drinking James Blake's Kool-Aid. Me, I came back for seconds.
It's obvious now that that battle is over, and the clear winner is the guy featured in hit movie soundtracks and Internet Explorer commercials. I don't think anyone lines Blake up with the dubstep label these days, and so now he's just his own thing. This brand of music with distorted, muffled bass steeped in pits of silence, like painting gray on black. On his follow-up album, OVERGROWN, there is a little more energy and fire, but for the most part it's still the cold earth and the deep sea.
The touches of life don't come from a higher tempo - it's still the moody, atmospheric low blood pressure stuff he's great at. But his self-titled was an emotive, bleeding depression, and OVERGROWN has its managed to wrestle its concerns from that realm. I remember listening to "Wilhelm's Scream" for the first time and feeling overcome by the static tide that slowly seeps into your interior life, and that feather-soft drumbeat that skips faster and faster. It makes sorrow feel like an event, a slow disaster.
But most of this album sounds like anxiety. It's not a grinding, worrisome, teeth-gnashing type of anxiety, but the kind that slowly weighs on your day until you find yourself sitting down, and your heart rate picks up, and you breathe deeply to calm yourself. It's apparent from the title track opener. The spine of the beat is an unchanging metronome, a kind of emotionless move that is meant to feel uncomfortable. A similar wiry, single note of a violin comes in halfway through just when you thought the melody would complete itself. It's this subtle dread build that exists in much of OVERGROWN, and while it's never overpowering or unlistenable, it is less of a relief for the heart's traffic.
The back half is stock full of this. "Digital Lion" is the prime example, using a dissonant beat to contrast with the soft ambience and acoustic guitar, but those elements lose the battle. Even on "Take A Fall For Me," a song which features RZA rapping on it is an anxious breakdown. RZA's verses are monotone and soft spoken until an ache takes over his voice and it cracks with need and want. It's a little odd, but consistent with the album as a whole. But is that what I want out of James Blake? A stress test?
To my ears, the song that even comes close to the flavor of his first album is "To The Last," a song which James Blake describes on Spotify as "a song that seems like a love song, but it really isn't. Or ... maybe it isn't." His confusion might reveal the songs emotional ambiguity if he can't even keep it straight, but that might be its strength. A steel drum-sounding keyboard gives us the closest thing to familiar melody yet, and it works to stand out against the rest of the album's blue and black hues.
Outside of this anxiety and stress center, OVERGROWN is still full of what we've come to know as James Blake-isms, and as a result it is constantly interesting. The way he clips the ends off of vocal samples, his multitracking that sounds like clones of him are singing from down the hall, the muffled underwater mixing, the showcase of distorted bass beats. His trademark choices always intrigue and keeps your ears at attention.
For that reason alone, I can see why it's still a critically acclaimed follow-up. It's just that James Blake has always made beautifully illustrative music - I describe a lot of songs as "moving" but a song like "Wilhelm's Scream" actually felt like it took you places. The same can be said for a song like "Retrograde" but it's not always a place I'm excited to go.