“Next big thing?” asks James Blake, reading the large backdrop behind him advertising the series of gigs in which he’s the main attraction. “No pressure then,” he adds with a grin. Wry or not, though, his smile suggests he knows tonight might be the one night when the pressure’s off – although the venue is heaving, the crowd are rapt and rapturous, and so well-welcomed is Blake on stage that one suspects he could slather ‘The Birdie Song’ with his trademark Auto-tune and still send the audience home happy.
Of course, he does nothing of the sort, although what he does produce is just as astonishing. For most of 2010, Blake made a name for himself constructing classically composed electronica, weaving super-addictive fabrics out of Aaliyah samples and intimate recordings of a battered piano, all sliced and diced with the precision of a sushi chef. Tonight, the techniques of those experiments remain, but are now applied to Blake the soul singer, and the results are spellbinding. With quiet confidence, enormous musical subtlety and eye-popping technical skill, Blake spends forty minutes filtering songs (that in normal circumstances would sit comfortably on the songwriter spectrum somewhere between Randy Newman and Bon Iver) through throbbing sub-bass and sinewy vocal distortions, creating a soundworld that is rich, textured and expressive in the most abnormal but organic of ways.
His first vocal draws gasps from the crowd – that voice should not come from that head – and the contradictions don’t end there. Modern singer-songwriter R’n’B shouldn’t sound like this; electronica shouldn’t be this moving; someone dressed like a physics student, with bashful stage presence and little in the way of chat, shouldn’t be this charismatic. Then, when Blake reaches into Joni Mitchell’s songbook for a cover of ‘Case of You’, he wrong-foots everyone, deconstructing the rhythm of the original and rebuilding it with a push and pull and spaciousness that almost makes it his own.
But in essence, this is still a singer-songwriter gig – a man, at a piano, playing songs – but with the tricks of one genre, namely UK bass music, applied to another in a way no one seems to have thought of before. Accordingly, Blake’s songs are littered with beautifully pregnant pauses, a device that not only allows the tracks to breathe but also accentuates the deep reverberations of the low frequencies and the decay of endlessly echoing vocals. He builds songs layer over layer, mutating them as he goes, until they wash together, intense and melancholic.
“Always listen to music alone, with the lights out, before you read reviews,” Blake insists after another round of adoring heckles, in response to the reaction his music is gathering from both within and outside the walls of the venue. It’s wise advice, and Blake’s is perfect late-night lights-out headphone music. But to enjoy it only like that would be to miss live performances like this: his ability to extract and twist the essence of beautiful songs so magically, and perform so technically with such soul, is a rare delight.
By Sam Walton
Originally published in issue 25 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2011