James Blake has found himself in somewhat turbulent waters since the much heralded release of his debut self-titled LP two years ago. For many, that album helped redefine what could be expected from the already loosely defined dubstep genre (even leading some to use the unhelpful term “post-dubstep” to describe James Blake and other difficult to classify EDM efforts). His combination of precise beatsmithing, minimalist composition, and stirring vocals seemed to herald something new and interesting among the normally raucous scene from whence he emerged. Since that album’s release, Blake has toured extensively, released two EPS, openly criticized the fratboy-centric direction of American dubstep, recorded a song with Bon Iver (but then, who hasn’t at this point), and publicly feuded with his label over the handling of his new album …all while attempting to write and produce a worthy follow up.
The result of this period, Overgrown, largely lives up to the lofty standards of James Blake while nudging, and occasionally shoving, Mr. Blake’s sound in new directions. The album is more tonally eclectic than its predecessor, with tracks ranging from stark chorus-backed ballads (the lovely “DLM”) to electronic gospel music (“Retrograde”) to collaborations with Brian Eno (“Digital Lion”) and RZA (“Take a Fall For Me”). While the R&B, Gospel, jazz, and disparate electronic influences showcased on Overgrown have always been featured in Blake’s work, here they are placed in the foreground and allowed to breathe.
Perhaps most notably, Blake chose to fill in many of his trademark empty spaces, opting for (relatively) denser soundscapes over minimalism on many tracks. While these efforts are largely successful, particularly on lead single “Retrograde” and album opener “Overgrown,” they can be a bit jarring for anyone expecting the glacial austerity of “Limit to Your Love.” But that seems to be the point as Overgrown is clearly the work of a man making a break from his past and the associations of the genre with which he is most closely associated to forge an independent path.
In all, Overgrown is somewhat uneven, owing mostly to Blake’s efforts to incorporate so many different styles and approaches into a single album. Particularly jarring are the collaborations with RZA and Brian Eno which seem out of place and interrupt the flow of the rest of the tracks. However, these are mere nits stemming largely from the high expectations engendered by James Blake’s success. While Overgrown might not reach the same heights of its predecessor, it is a more than worthy sophomore album whose highpoints are more than sufficient to compensate for its (relative) lows.