Enriched by gorgeous watercolour artwork from veteran illustrator and namesake Quentin, The Colour In Anything is James Blake’s much awaited, seventy-minute, return. Professed favourite of Kanye West, few in electronic pop have had as much impact as Blake upon the sound palate of the output of their peers. In a recent Guardian interview he proclaimed that ‘I’m the opposite of punk: I’ve subdued a generation’ and it would be hard to contest him. Indeed in a stubborn rejection of the ultra-bombast of EDM superstars like Skrillex and Calvin Harris, Blake doesn’t shoot for the stratosphere of volume and taste but instead heads inward, burrowing down inside himself and his psyche. His third LP moves even further in that direction, the album littered with nods towards the very real world in which it exists: ‘Points’ features a breakdown reminiscent of passing police sirens and ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’ shivers with tinned laughter. His is electronica, born of the hills.
Blake spoke upon the album’s debut that he considers this record to break new ground for him, having realised how sad his debut James Blake made him sound. The Colour in Anything though seems very much a continuation of his existing work rather than a revolution or tonal shift. It evokes Joni Mitchell’s Blue, not Pharrell William’s GIRL; with even the optimistic title deceptive – the full lyric revealed to be “one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything”. If this is James Blake’s ‘happy’ record we need to keep an eye the same way we do Leonard Cohen and Lykke Li: because this is one of the 2016’s bleakest albums yet. Still, it’s a body of work which quivers with phenomenal electronic inflection, deep musical exploration and plenty (plenty) of soul searching.
As has always been the case on Blake’s albums, his words boast precision rather than extended lyrical feats, and on The Colour in Anything he gets to the heart more concisely than ever. “Tell me where I have to go and then love me there” is a poignant reflection that carries the devastating ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’, while the twist of “no longer, no longer her” on ‘Points’ is clever and emotive. Blake’s singing too is in fine form. On ballads like ‘F.O.R.E.V.E.R’, and even his appearance on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, there are times when it is his main weapon and he deploys it gracefully: gravel-throated in the lows and silky smooth in the highs. When his voice breaks through the pitch-shifted intro of ‘My Willing Heart’ the impact is stunning: remarkably nuanced layering falling in perfect syncopation with a rich and looming drum beat. He also pushes himself further than the haunting crooning of James Blake and Overgrown, ejaculating ad-libs on ‘Noise Above Our Heads’ and ‘Two Men Down’. ‘Radio Silence’ meanwhile is a stunning and slow-burning opener, and is easily one of the best singles of the year so far.
Much has been made of the collaborations behind this album: writing credits from Frank Ocean, production credits for Rick Rubin – and indeed Blake asserts that the record couldn’t have been made alone, unlike his first. Truly though, the finished product conceals this almost entirely: it’s a deeply personal record, befitting Blake’s signature style. The one foreign vocal appearance from Justin Vernon results in one of the weirder tracks on the record. Formally ‘I Need a Forest Fire’ breaks the verse chorus structure of most of its fellows, and is easily the most openly joyous cuts on the LP: yet its function as a part of the theme of the record is a little ambiguous.
“The old soul of Blake’s music means that the slightest suggestion of impermanence is greeted with terror”
Not every moment on the album is subdued either, though surprisingly the up-tempo moments are often the least memorable. ‘Timeless’ features a gorgeous synth melody, though with The Colour In Anything lacking the diversity of his self-titled debut, a song like this blends less well: its pointedly trap flavoured second half ill-fitting the reverb soaked soul of the album whole, even if the song itself works on its own. ‘I Hope My Life (1800-Mix)’ is another lesser cut: the beat is fairly stiff and unremarkable, while the repeated utterance of “maybe I’ll just press my hands on it” goes from beautiful to sinister to dull. Not all maximalist moments on this downbeat LP go over underwhelming though: ‘Choose Me’ being a wonderful exception to the rule. The quick succession of drum taps that open the song make its bombast clear from the off, while Blake’s vocals are uniquely forceful – hollering the pre-chorus over relentlessly ascending synths: “I looked into myself like a case with you/you don’t weigh me down like you think you do”. James Blake doesn’t hire choirs: he makes his own.
As with Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, if there was a title waiting to encapsulate the style of this particular artist then it comes for Blake in ‘Modern Soul’: a wonderfully sung ballad which is disrupted in touching style by metallic shivers and low-end rumbles. ‘Always’, which follows, is the album’s ‘Freedom’ moment, and it’s a fitting resolution to the tumult of the record which preceded it. Punctuated by a looped female vocal, Blake sings of gaining control of himself, ready to shape his “sweet world”. ‘Meet You In The Maze’, the album’s closer, is a soulful acapella which explains more than anyone why Justin Vernon was invited to be on this record – it’s soft spoken nature and intricate vocal layering reminds deeply of the Blood Bank EP which so enraptured Kanye West, and serves as a meditative prologue to the record, the phrase “music can’t be everything” leaving the album on more of an ellipsis than a full stop.
The old soul of Blake’s music means that the slightest suggestion of impermanence is greeted with terror. On ”F.O.R.E.V.E.R’ he sings “don’t use the word ‘forever’/we lie too long to be so loved”: a line whose nervousness makes sense, for a man who makes music as timid as his. As with the subtle electronic strokes and syncopations of his production though, so too is the modern world alluded to. ‘Put That Away and Talk To Me’ hints at a bugbear of 21st century interaction, referenced in the melody by Toy Soliders-esque robotic freakouts. Meanwhile natural imagery spatters both the cover artwork and the words James sings, professing “you want to know me like waves know shores” on the deeply meditative eighth track, while the title track opens with the statement “on your island, there’s no weather warning/there’s no sudden showers/there’s no certain power”.
Nuanced electro-pop has been around since the seventies, performed by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell, yet essentially The Colour In Anything strikes a ground-breaking and beautiful syncopation between the natural world and the strictly electronic: instrumentally and conceptually. In the mastering of a style that was once uniquely his, Blake reflects the words of his namesake, not the man who sketched the gorgeous artwork that adorns the album’s cover but the poet who once said “you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough”. In his music James shows, rather than the tells, the way in which the modern tools that manufacture the vulgar bombast of the likes of Skrillex and Diplo can work instead in harmony with the transient qualities of nuance, reflectiveness and soul.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
Liam is currently listening to ‘I’m On’ by Kamaiyah
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.