Last year, J. Craig Venter and his team of scientists did an extraordinary thing. They engineered a piece of genetic code, then stuck it into an already existing biological entity—a small bacteria. As the DNA was transcribed and turned into real proteins, the natural bacteria turned into a completely different organism, which never existed before. The team had created the first piece of synthetic life.
James Blake’s transformation from dubstep producer to something else is a funny one. He didn’t just decide to put down his synthesizer and pick up a guitar, or stop chopping up vocals, or cease putting in crazy negative space in between reverby sections of dubstep rhythms and sub-bass. On his self-titled debut, the music feels like a natural extension, even though by all accounts it’s completely different.
There is scarcely any guitar on the album, and Blake tells no stories. His lyrics are oblique, his song structures repetitive and often very simplistic. And yet the 22 year-old Londoner reaches unplumbed emotional depths using the mostly untapped potential of electronics to reach the soul. It grows from the incongruously large field of dubstep, itself a subgenre and massive umbrella term. Yet Blake repurposes the tools and tricks for something more meaningful than the usual. His standout tracks are songs, not collections of effects. This is not an electronic music mixtape—this is an album. Consider songs like “The Wilhelm Scream,” which repeats two lines into infinity as the reverb gradually increases then recedes, leaving a tidal pool of sonic decay in between the powerful vocals.
It doesn’t hurt that Blake’s voice is highly expressive, able to reach a breathy soulfulness and melisma that is hard to find in the genre. He uses it to sing mournful melodies about what could be anything, but sound like loss. At the same time, the vocals are often manipulated, like Blake did in his samples last year. The vocal manipulations are striking in that they aren’t window dressings or affectations, but produce real emotional resonance. They are everything from Auto-tuned in “Lindesfarne I” to cut up and pitch-shifted in “To Care (Like You).” So it’s startling when Blake leaves his vocals unadorned, like at the start of “Limit To Your Love.” He sounds naked.
James Blake transcends dubstep, and perhaps artificiality as a whole. The sheer artifice of the whole thing—the reverb, the pitch shifting, the self-sampling, the stuttering percussion—becomes organic, perhaps more organic than a guitar could ever have accomplished. Like Venter, James Blake has created synthetic life. He takes the artificial and inserts it into the existent to create something entirely new.