In 2010 a then 21-year-old James Blake released a series of three EPs in the fringes of the dubstep/wonky scene, dicing modern R&B samples, piano and his own voice into tiny rhythmic shards and sprinkling them around UK bass music's decaying exoskeleton. With each EP his approach grew more abstract and by the last, Klavierwerk, Blake's process developed into an almost zen-like sparseness that was as overtly somber as it was un-danceable. His production seemed as if he aimed not to expand the palate of dubstep, but look beyond it, searching for something tougher to pin down. Bearing only the faintest smears of the genre's token bass-weight, he instead sketched songs in a haunted avant-garde space, a ghost just outside the edge of the frame. Strangely, the hype surrounding him became gargantuan.
All of this makes Blake's rebirth as a "singer songwriter" that much more disorienting. In the 11 tracks of this debut full length, we find Blake behind the piano shaping a high-tech form of blued-eyed R&B steeped in British parlor croon and the faint tropes of modern singer-songwriterism. And, perhaps even more strangely, it works. His style is so fully formed that it makes one wonder if this shift was planned all along.
The landscape is hyper-modernized post-Timbaland production mixed with gospel piano chords and dubstep flourishes, all with Blake's plaintive and emotional voice comfortably sitting at the forefront. Either naked or digitally effected, Blake sings simple repetitive phrases like mantras ("My brother and my sister / don't speak to me / but I don't blame them"). Auto-Tune and vocoding effects sometimes filter the vocals, 'though it doesn't come off as an attempt to mask his voice, instead adding nuance and complexity to the emotional weight it can carry, the gentle curl of Auto-Tune's corrections making beautifully pure, precise harmonies. As with his other work, the space between the skittering, crisp sounds is of the utmost importance, this time making room for vocal lines and heightening their emotional punch. There's a distinctly British kind of sadness present that brings to mind 1970s singers like John Martyn or even Rock Bottom-era Robert Wyatt.
The ghost of bass music haunts the album like an unwelcome incantation (drifting in most heavily on his cover of Feist's "Limit to your Love"), though the subtle use of deep, beating sub bass and wonky off-kilter synths are bent to serve's Blake's own purposes instead the usual dancefloor semantics. Make no mistake, this is a post-club record, home listening for when the high crashes. To those expecting next-level 80-Hz buzzsaw gut-churning it may scream crossover, but this is not even vaguely a dubstep record, even if it occasionally uses the genre's tools. Like any true auteur Blake ultimately sits outside of the context he sprung from, instead whittling away at his own goals, his own expression.