James Blake Strays Tonally on New EP

by Dan Fuchs

James Blake has experimented with several styles in his short career: shifting from the grimy dubstep of his earlier work to the more piano-focused ballads on his debut LP.  On “Enough Thunder,” Blake tries to meld the styles of two years’ worth of releases together, and the result is an EP that feels musically lost, overly ambitious and inconsistent. That’s not to say, however, that there are not moments that truly shine.

The first third of the EP, undoubtedly the most experimental, is the part where quality truly suffers. On “Once We All Agree” and “We Are All Unsound,” Blake tries too hard to weave his two distinct styles together. These songs end up being so cacophonous and chaotic that it is nearly impossible to decipher Blake’s lyrics. “Once We All Agree” drones on for nearly four and a half minutes, and, even with Blake’s stunning if indecipherable voice, feels repetitive and dreary. “We Are All Unsound,” at least, uses Blake’s mastery of noise and rhythm to create a truly eerie, haunting piece that evolves into a strangely fascinating cacophony of beats and chaos.

For most of the EP, however, Blake shines as a musician and producer. “Fall Creek Boy’s Choir,” a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, is an incredibly powerful composition, melding both artists’ styles without feeling overly complex. Vernon’s quiet, vulnerable, folk-influenced Americana meshes seamlessly with Blake’s loud, liberated sonic manipulation. The song’s lyrics fit perfectly with its sound, conveying a sense of bewilderedness.  Lyrics like “I will be love befallen” and “I will wait for growing” articulate both songwriters’ romantic, surreal helplessness.

Conversely, the album’s other shining moment is Blake’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which he has converted into a soft piano ballad. It is indescribably beautiful, Blake’s vulnerable yet innocent voice jabbing itself into the listener’s heart. When he croons, “you’re in my blood, like holy wine/You taste so bitter and yet so sweet,” he surpasses Mitchell’s original recording, and truly tugs on the heartstrings.  “Not Long Now” is certainly one of the better genre-melding tracks, with Blake’s falsetto voice swerving and distorting its way above a quiet, sinister hum that eventually dissolves into a smooth plunge towards a pulsating beat. As he sings, “it’s blue to know/that I’m free to go,” the listener feels Blake’s agonizing emotional pain, his childlike innocence conveyed in his quiet, boyish voice.

The last track, “Enough Thunder”, is a piano ballad, like “A Case of You,” but in this case, distortion around the vocals and instrumentals makes the track nearly unlistenable. It sounds as if it were recorded on terrible equipment, and while Blake’s voice shines tonally, it disappointingly lacks the emotion that most of the EP had attained.

“Enough Thunder” is an interesting beast. Even for its inconsistencies, the EP is compelling, but it still leaves the listener lost. Tracks like “Fall Creek Boys Choir” and “A Case of You” indicate a bright future for James Blake, but we cannot help but wonder if he, too, is lost. It feels as if Blake is at a crossroads in his short, two-year career, and hopefully time will allow him to find himself on his next projects.

Dan Fuchs is a contributing writer.  Email him at music@nyunews.com

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