Dubstep has been kicking and skipping around for about a decade now, but as genres go, it’s still relatively young. Only in recent years did the style, based in British garage and Jamaican dub, start to reach an audience closer to mainstream, and for that matter, produce a handful of classic albums. The latter point is probably irrelevant to purists; the album format, more than ever a hot topic of debate with regard to relevance, has never been essential in order for electronic music to thrive. That said, recent efforts from the likes of Burial, Mount Kimbie and Various Production have shown what kind of progress has been made in dubstep over the past decade, and the debut album by 22-year-old Londoner James Blake is yet another interesting leap for a continually evolving style.
Blake’s debut is not dubstep in the purest sense. Production-wise, it’s certainly rooted in the kind of spacious atmosphere and bass-heavy sound that might find him in some way aesthetically aligned with Burial or Boxcutter. But there’s a playful lightness about Blake’s music that makes it all the more pop friendly and much harder to shoehorn into a convenient category. And quite unlike many of his peers, Blake isn’t afraid to add his own soulful vocals to his compositions, the most immediately impressive example being those in his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” a standout that takes the passionate and gorgeous piano ballad of the original and skates it across a pond of cracking beats and ambient echoes. It’s quite pretty, actually, and more than anything, just a solid pop song.
As Blake displayed through Kelis samples on last year’s “C.M.Y.K.”, he has a fondness for American R&B, and if one particular artist’s influence shines through on this album, it’s D’Angelo. The two don’t sound remarkably similar mind you; Blake may be soulful, but let’s not get crazy, here. Nonetheless, James Blake certainly takes more than a few sonic cues from the smoky, spacious funk of Voodoo. The album’s first track has a similar kind of slow kick to it, gently grooving into a lazily sputtering funk, driven by Blake’s own auto-tuned vocals. Similarly, the pulse rumbling deep within “Wilhelm Scream” is subtle enough to hypnotize but Blake’s vocals are by far the most dramatic and expressive element of the song, an impassioned croon that few of his anonymity-loving peers would dare attempt.
A handful of songs on James Blake’s debut, namely “Give Me My Month” and “Why Don’t You Call Me,” are actually fairly straightforward, if brief, piano ballads, revealing a boldness and sincerity that makes the album all the more charming. There’s a lot going on here, though none of it seems particularly forced or overbearing. In fact, it’s a very subtle and laid back album, likely to sooth as much as it excites. That sometimes results in a kind of adult-contemporary version of dubstep, but in this case, a little bit of hipster cred is worth sacrificing in the name of some quite good songs.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.