On The Posthuman Soul of James Blake

For many months now I’ve been hearing about this young English musician/DJ/singer James Blake.  The BBC cited him as a musician to watch in 2011 and Blake just released his first full length album, James Blake.  This self-titled recording is a striking collection of pared-down songs comprising mostly auto-tuned/processed voice, analog keyboards or piano, and the most minimal and spare electronic percussion one could have.  Here’s an interview with him on the BBC:

Here is his single, “Limit To Your Love”:

So what’s the big deal?  So many things are striking about this recording it’s hard to know where to start.  First, Blake has figured out a way to use auto-tune/digital voice processing in an emotionally moving way.  Here’s the thing: he can really sing so auto-tune isn’t used as a crutch or as a cliché sound.  Rather, it’s a timbral effect used musically, allowing Blake to wildly experiment with tuning, harmonies and extreme registers.  Auto-tune (or whatever he’s using) allows Blake to turn his singing voice into an even more subtle instrument of affect.

A second thing about Blake’s recording is its incredible sense of space. There aren’t really consistent basslines in this music, freeing the midrange for gauzy keyboards.  Percussion is little more than kick drum, cross stick, and the occasional hi hat or metallic sound (I heard a fleeting Roland 808 chime somewhere), reminding me of the micro-minimalism of Alva Noto.  This makes for austere textures in which every sound has a place to resound.  And don’t forget silence: Blake incorporates little breaks of Zen nothingness between verses (drum fills are so last century!) and so some songs end abruptly, looking over the edge of silence’s chasm.  Track 2, “The Wilhelm Scream” illustrates well this spacious texture:

Blake’s music doesn’t fit into the normal stylistic “frames” of electronic music or the pop music continuum either.  Consider, for example, the song “I Mind”, a great example of Blake’s pushing musical boundaries.  Built around a three-chord piano progression (that vaguely recalls Radiohead’s “Everything in its right place” meeting Arvo Part’s “Fratres”), the song builds over this vamp by endlessly modulating Blake’s sampled vocals, blurring the lines between live and electronic sound.  “I Mind” is a great example of Blake’s voice cloned and multiplied all over the map, giving us a whole chorus of voices that sound like a digital gospel sound from the future.  You can listen to the track at here.

Music can make us feel things that are new to us–it presents us with new ways of feeling by modelling that feeling through its sounds. (I never cease to wonder how this is achieved.)  At the same time, as we listen we draw on every music we’ve ever heard to help us map the coordinates of this new affecting space.  James Blake’s album is powerful because it really does lead us into new spaces of feeling where we keep grasping for prior musical references but soon give up and start focusing on the contours of this new space.  While electronic music is the vehicle, it doesn’t define the feeling conveyed–a remarkable achievement considering how pre-determined electronic music can sound.  No, this is much more fluid territory.  Blake’s world conjures up desire meeting cold empty spaces, his processed voice like someone trapped in a hard drive.  But there is an adventurous sense of play here as well–the mark of someone who knows their craft–and the music never strictly repeats.  Like feelings, it keeps changing.

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