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James Blake, ‘Overgrown’ – Album Review

James BlakeDubstep, in principle, is about dissolving into the ether. It’s music with very specific parameters: drowsy BPMs, wobbly sub-bass, the click-clack patter of digital percussion — repetitive soundscapes for the dance floors in our lonely brains. But as with any genre, those parameters have become tiring; artists like James Blake have used dubstep as a jumping-off point, blending the genre’s icy electronic mystique with a more hands-on, R&B-inflected approach.

But for all of the undeniable promise found on Blake’s 2011 debut, that album still failed to register on an emotional level. That voice — manipulated and looped, swathed in vocoder and kaleidoscopic effects, crooning soulful mantras — seemed to float aimlessly amid the fragmented pianos and goopy electro-buzz, planting the seeds of proper songs that never fully bloomed.

‘Overgrown’ delivers on that album’s implied promise, injecting a sense of urgency (not to mention a palpable human pulse) to match Blake’s sonic splendor. The title-track opens in a fizzy haze, with blinking electronics and distant piano chords — but the ambient drift eventually washes away, and Blake’s effortless melisma is gradually engulfed in sampled strings and glitchy hi-hats. Sure, it may be a textural wonder, but it’s also a proper song, with a clear build of tension and release. In five lovely minutes, it solidifies Blake as something more than just a guy with a great voice and interesting ideas.

That focus is contagious on Blake’s sophomore album. Even his moodiest textures (the muffled grandeur of ‘I Am Sold’) feel full-blooded, grounding his weirdest experiments (the stark crawl of ‘Take a Fall For Me,’ which features a puzzling rapped cameo from Wu-Tang icon RZA). Elsewhere, Blake lets his spellbinding voice breathe (the spooky, synthesized climb of ‘Retrograde’) and finds colorful new ways to marry organic and electronic instrumentation (the sprawling kitchen-sink pulses of ‘Digital Lion,’ a striking collaboration with some unknown producer named Brian Eno).

With ‘Overgrown,’ James Blake is no longer “post-dubstep,” or “post” anything, really. This is simply great music — from an artist whose execution has finally matched his inventive vision.

8 out of 10 rating

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