James Blake’s baritone sounds like a voice caught in a throat. It falters, it skips, it chokes. This pained, broken thing is the starting point of all of Blake’s music. From this voice emerges an even greater depth of sound: part R&B, part ambient, part lo-fi love song. His vocals are often dipped in AutoTune, but his fragility drills through the effects. His newest album, The Colour in Anything (released with little advance notice last Friday), opens with Blake already at the height of emotional turmoil: "I can’t believe that you don’t want us," he sings, like someone has just stabbed him in the chest. "I’m sorry I don’t know how you feel," he shrugs. In the background, a buzzing static and a ticking metronome set the beat. It’s a classic James Blake song: sorrowful, apologetic, and radiating with a lonesomeness that’s almost violent.
A lonesomeness that's almost violent
The Colour in Anything won’t come as a surprise to longtime Blake fans, but it showcases his ability to shed some earlier hesitation and step into his most comfortable place: desolation. Since his 2011 self-titled debut, Blake has emerged as one of the most important vocalists and producers today, deserving a chunk of credit for the jagged, cold production favored by artists like Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs. Recently, in perhaps his most high-profile collaboration to date, Blake lent a sharpness to Beyonce’s recent surprise album, Lemonade (he co-wrote "Pray You Catch Me" and is featured on "Forward). Blake is indebted to artists like The xx, who perfected the sound of needy electronic hollowness, but while The xx’s shadowy side extends to their public personas (they haven’t released an album since 2013), Blake has managed to propel his preference for the nighttime into the spotlight.
As a producer and as a singer, Blake finds inspiration in emptiness, filling in uneven, jarring beats with sighs and wordless crooning. "Love Me in Whatever Way" layers in a sound somewhere between a laugh track and a squelch, giving a surreal, nightmarish quality to a song that already sounds dreary. "F.o.r.e.v.e.r." is a straight piano ballad, but Blake’s voice is out in full force, stretching from whisper to falsetto in seconds. Blake is a deceptively frail vocalist; his voice retains a pliability usually lost in people who are falling apart.
The Colour in Anything feels more sparse than Blake’s debut and 2013’s Overgrown. Maybe this is partially thanks to Blake’s collaborators. He enlisted Rick Rubin, whose finesse at bringing pop song structures to more aggressive sounds is on display here. While Overgrown featured Brian Eno and RZA, The Colour in Anything opts for guests who lean toward the stark and delicate (a Kanye West verse that never came to fruition would have been the outlier). "My Willing Heart" was co-written with R&B’s eminent loner Frank Ocean — Blake is almost whispering through the entire track. In "I Need A Forest Fire" Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon places his vocals down carefully, as if too many words would upend the song’s wobbly percussion.
What The Colour in Anything lacks in sonic density, it makes up for in length. At nearly 20 tracks and 76 minutes in length, it’s a heavy, time-consuming listen. Blake’s nervous vulnerability and cheerlessness are so constant it sometimes starts to feel like a challenge to anyone not entirely willing to get caught up in it — any moments of relief or levity are quickly snuffed out. On "Points," a flicker of bubblegum pop gets mere seconds to live before Blake’s murmurings and vocal hiccups take its place. "Timeless" layers in a stinging synth note over a song that would otherwise have sounded like a relaxing ode to selfish love. It’s a classic Blake move to take things right up to a climax, but never quite get there.
The pressure for reinvention is absent here
At this point, we know Blake when we hear him, and nobody expected him to suddenly go electro-pop or make a dancehall album. The pressure for reinvention that usually sits on the shoulders of today’s biggest musicians is entirely absent when it comes to James Blake; he’s clearly the type of artist who prefers to stick with and perfect a particular sound. The Colour in Anything makes a case for the careful, deliberate, comfortingly static musician. And throughout its runtime, Blake sounds both numbly comfortable and completely gutted.