2010 was a perfect year for an artist like James Blake to emerge. With dubstep lurking around every corner in its most bombastic form, Blake swept in with sparser electronics, nary an aggressive wub in sight, and fell into a category all his own, deemed “post-dubstep,” for better or for worse. This different approach, coupled with his smooth, R&B-influenced voice, led to a self-titled debut in 2011 that felt fresh to some, puzzling and too stripped-down to others. But the mixed reaction didn’t seem to phase him as he’s back with another album that picks up exactly where he left off.
Like his eponymous first album, Overgrown finds Blake leading us through a dreamy, low-toned abyss, where slowed-down hip-hop beats skulk and his bright voice floats on high. What makes Overgrown different from his first try is the upping of the R&B influence and the greater depth and imagery of the lyrics. “So if that is how it is,” Blake mutters on the title track, “I don’t want to be a star/Or a stone on the shore/Or a door frame on a wall/When everything’s overgrown.”
Blake’s best moments on Overgrown occur when he finds that balance between the upbeat hip-hop rhythms and the down-tempo acoustics that so brilliantly parallel his voice. “Retrograde” is a perfect example of this in action, with Blake’s introductory hum looped underneath alongside clap-track beats for the duration of the song. The background voice threads a melody throughout the track, and the tinny smack of the rhythm pushes it forward. Blake builds his songs piece by piece, and next he adds watery, distorted piano, then his own voice on the verses. At the chorus, all of his elements coalesce and explode into a booming brightness, the whole seeming even greater than just the sum of its parts.
Blake has labeled his own sound as “melodic bass music,” and it’s a lot more fitting for his serene croons and soulful synths than something as narrow as “post-dubstep.” It’s dark and futuristic on the Brian Eno collaboration “Digital Lion.” The percussion range of “Life Round Here,” all high hisses and murky wiggles, makes it sound like a track from some club that’s not just underground in the way that gives it street cred—it’s actually located in the darkened center of the Earth. And his recruitment of RZA for the lead on “Take A Fall For Me” shows how well his instrumental work—which should encompass his voice—still stands in the front even when it’s meant to take a backseat. Overgrown shows too much presence of mind to be called post-anything.