As a wise internet personality once clarified, there’s a big difference between dubstep and “dubstep.” The form of dubstep that has taken off here in the United States, thanks to artists like Skrillex, is more colloquially known as “bro-step.” Needless to say, the common conception of “dubstep” is a far cry from the dub and reggae influenced sound that originally gave this particular brand of music its name. In fact, much of what elite dubstep aficionados, especially those in touch with its European origins, consider within the purview of the genre could easily be mistaken for other kinds of music, ranging from trance to ambient sound to straight-up R&B.
It’s that latter sensibility that informs most of the songs on ‘Overgrown,’ the sophomore album from U.K. singer/songwriter/producer James Blake. Blake quickly made a name for himself in the late ’00s with a series of EPs leading up to the release of his debut self-titled album in 2011. While a terrific display of his talents, ‘James Blake’ had a somewhat skeletal vibe to it (fitting Blake’s haunting falsetto nicely) that has only been fleshed out over the intervening years. On his latest album, the songs manage to be just as ephemeral and atmospheric as before without feeling slight or forgettable.
That second risk is especially prevalent with ambient music, where the mood of the moment is often given priority over lasting impressions or tangible hooks. On the titular first track, Blake seizes on the instrumentality of his own voice to reel listeners in, holding them firm while the discordant drum machine beat slowly swells into a celestial cloud of synth. All along the way, Blake’s lyrics entreat to us: “I want you to know / I took you with me / when things are thrown away like they are.” There’s a seductiveness to Blake’s lyricism, the prevalent R&B sensibility I mentioned earlier, that assures the listener that there is much to be found in the open spaces and cool rests of ‘Overgrown’s’ tight ten track playlist.
This invitation proves all the more alluring on ” I Am Sold,” where we are made to “lay nocturnal [and] speculate what we feel.” The thoughts that arise from this revere are tinged with anxiety, with loneliness and fear of loneliness, even as Blake himself becomes more assured on “Life Around Here.” The plink of keyboards establish a more energetic tone, one that soon rises with harsh synth chords that generate an honest-to-goodness groove. There hasn’t been a false note yet, but Blake admits it is with this song that “Everything feels like touchdown.”
And if that weren’t a gauntlet being thrown, then the introduction of Wu-Tang member RZA on “Take a Fall for Me” would definitely do the trick. Admittedly, it’s a little odd hearing the New York rapper tossing out words like “quid” and “fish and chips,” but there’s a sincerity to his lines (it is a song about pleading a woman back from another suitor) that disarms, and it all feels right at home with Blake’s refrain, “You can’t marry her… yet.” This raw vulnerability leads right into “Retrograde,” the album’s first single and yet another missive to a potentially lost love. Here, we have another in the long line of Blake’s strong vocal hooks: “I’ll wait, so show me why you’re strong / Ignore everybody else / We’re alone now.” This time, Blake reveals to us that his longing isn’t merely selfish, but an empathetic bond with the woman he calls out to, one of understanding and established intimacy. This sense of history proves to be one of ‘Overgrown’s’ greatest strengths; Indeed, just as this theme of memories starts to assert itself, we have the album’s shortest track, “Dlm.” Accented throughout by sudden piano plucks, Blake serenades the inevitability of romantic pain, even as he begs, “Don’t let it hurt you no more.”
For thematic unity, ‘Overgrown’ does take a bit of a detour with “Digital Lion,” though it’s admittedly hard to resist when a track is this exciting and rich. I’ll admit, I was shocked to see that this marked Blake’s sole collaboration with Brian Eno: of all of ‘Overgrown’s’ tracks, “Digital Lion” is the most restless, presenting us with an unrelenting beat and, I kid you not, an air-horn blast apropos of nothing. It may be the album’s least intellectual track, but there are plenty of other songs for that, and we were due for a pick-me-up at this point.
If “Voyeur” suffers as a weaker track, it’s at least partially due to resting squarely in the previous track’s shadow. It’s a serviceable tune, sure, but the repetitiousness lyrics and unique instrumental flourishes are just so much “been there, heard that.” “To the Last,” meanwhile, is a veritable lullaby compared to the bittersweet bedtime stories of earlier tracks. And as the synthesized ocean waves sing us to sleep, Blake closes things out with “Our Love Comes Back;” specifically, said love “comes back in the middle of the night” for us to find it with us upon waking. It’s a lovely little closer to ‘Overgrown’s’ loop of love lost and found, presented to use as naturally as the orbit of the planets or the respiration of air.
The biological comparison is particularly fitting, for just like life and love, ‘Overgrown’ is over far too quickly. At just under 40 minutes, it’s remarkable that James Blake, an artist still only on his second album, you’ll recall, could pack such a fleet fullness of emotion into that time. There’s nothing wrong with leaving ’em wanting more, but it’s all the harder when there’s nowhere else to turn for a fix; James Blake proves with ‘Overgrown’ that he makes music like nobody else.