Dubstep has quite evolved. Not only has it produced crowd-pleasing artists, such as Skrillex, Nero, Porter Robinson, Skream, Flux Pavilion, and Major Lazer, but has developed several sub-genres, including witch house, post-dubstep, chillstep, and brostep. Dubstep has revolutionized the music world, as well as the electronic music genre. It has both influenced and divided music listeners, predominately because of its noisy and blaring bass-loaded sound, as well as its takeover on mainstream pop music, for artists like Muse, will.i.am., and Imagine Dragons. However, there are still a few respectable dubstep artists, including U.K. singer/producer James Blake.
His 2011 acclaimed eponymous debut won critics and indie music listeners over with its unique style and clean production. The album broadened the conceptual idea of dubstep by cleverly mixing post-dubstep with R&B, electronic, and dreamy synth-pop. It also introduced Blake’s beautiful tenor, as well as his chilling piano playing. This year, James Blake released an exceptional follow-up, Overgrown. Blake’s second record is his most ambitious, collaborative, and experimental. Overgrown blends Blake’s own post-dubstep sounds with electro-soul, gospel, progressive house, and even hip hop, thanks to a feature from rapper RZA. The album also explores loneliness, unrequited love, solace, and emotional emptiness. But despite these bleak themes, Overgrown is filled with lively beats and an ethereal atmosphere.
On the tranquil title track opener, Blake repeatedly sings the phrase, “Time passes in a constant state,” signifying his inability to grasp the physical and emotional form of love. Some of Blake’s best Overgrown tracks — “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde,” “DLM” — also talk about the overbearing feeling of solidarity over loving someone, which says something about Blake as an artist. He creates beautiful music by connecting various rhythms with relatable lyrics, and the result is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Blake sings more about love on “Life Round Here,” while being backed by a humming electro-keyboard, funky hip hop thumps, and electronic synths. “Retrograde” sounds a lot like the sequence of the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, which depicts the feeling of despair before the destruction of the world. “Retrograde” begins with Blake singing and humming softly, while the hand-clapping beat slowly continues into a thrash of glass-shattering synths and Blake proclaims, “Suddenly I’m hit!,” as if the world were intermittently collapsing. “DLM” is Overgrown‘s most bewitching ballad, as Blake layers his elegant voice over his own hums and a dramatic piano.
Although Blake’s engaging second record breaks barriers with different genres, there are a few faults with adding new genres to Blake’s eclectic repertoire. The RZA-featured “Take a Fall for Me” is adequate and RZA raps more poetically than aggressively, but the song feels odd compared with the other Overgrown tunes. The noisy bonus track, “Every Day I Ran,” is also an unnecessary addition to Overgrown and is surprisingly missing Blake’s voice.
However, the second half of Overgrown expands much better on Blake’s musical approach, as it focuses more on electronic than his other used various genres. “Digital Lion,” which features electronic producer Brian Eno, is one of Blake’s most haunting music pieces, as Blake hums and croons over a constantly changing beat of clattering hi-hats, whirring keyboards, and electronic horns. “Voyeur” is one of Blake’s most electronic-induced songs to date, ever since his bone-chilling dubstep track “I Never Learnt to Share” on his debut. “Voyeur” predominantly drowns out Blake’s voice with rattling cowbells, noisy synths, and bass-heavy beats. It’s not a bad thing in this case, as Blake delves deeper into his enigmatic post-dubstep sound. “To the Last,” another outstanding Overgrown track, tiptoes with an ambient neo-soul funk beat and a Sade-sounding Blake.
Compared to James Blake’s effervescent debut, Overgrown is much more eclectic and mysterious, but occasionally misses the musical and thematic element that made the first record great. Say what you will about dubstep, James Blake’s ethos and aestheticism will continue to push him to greater heights and his music will hopefully evoke the same sense of awe as any dubstep artist.
Suggested Tracks: “Overgrown,” “Life Round Here,” “Retrograde, “DLM,” “To the Last”