Joni Mitchell is the favourite genius of James Blake. He will tell you that – not that he needs to. With his sublime rendering of the Canadian’s A Case of You, the evidence of his affinity was in. The cover was part of Blake’s Enough Thunder EP from 2011. (As was Fall Creek Boys Choir, the weird Auto-Tuned spiritual made in collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.)
One hears Mitchell’s influence on the gorgeous lead and title track of Blake’s new album, the follow-up to his groundbreaking eponymous debut. It is muffled, murmured, head-tripping and softly giant – a very modern update of the soulful singer-songwriters of another era, Mitchell included. The lovely style of Lulu or Dusty Springfield is detected as well.
Blake is a fair-haired Londoner, a star to some for his unique and gentle ways with piano, pitch-shifting vocals and lap-top dub-pop atmospherics. His debut album was a stunner – something from a friendly galaxy well away – but perhaps a touch too avant garde for the mainstream. On this, his second album, the oddness is dialled back a bit – a concession, a conscious one maybe.
The song Overgrown concerns permanence: “I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on the shore, a lone doorframe in a war.” Blake had spoken with Mitchell on the subject of lasting after a show of his at the Troubadour in Los Angeles; Mitchell, who wrote about frozen rivers that went on forever and a lover being in her blood like a holy wine.
Something that would provide Blake’s career with some length would be an improvement in songwriting. After all, his best-known songs were written by others: Feist’s Limit to Your Love and The Wilhelm Scream, a rewrite of Where to Turn, by Blake’s own father, the musician James Litherland.
So we now have Life Around Here, a fluid piece of rainy-day R&B head-nod. DLM is a love ballad, done in a ghostly gospel manner. Retrograde, which moves sensitively and slowly to a clapped beat, arrives to a sudden synthed-out chorus.
Are these hits? No, not really. They are the expressions from an artistic soul, pure music from out of the body. Blake is in the rare category of musician – the Feists, the Bon Ivers, the Patrick Watsons, the Stevie Wonders, the D’Angelos, the Mitchells. They seem to take it all in and breathe it back out in selfless and helpless melody, rhythm and ambience.
It’s all very liquid what these people do, with the songs – to perilously extend the metaphor – being their bottles. If Blake’s taste is not for everyone, so be it. Me? I could drink a case of him, and still be standing and wanting more.
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