James Blake “S/T” [A&M/Atlas; 2011]
When I first heard that Kanye West’s “Dark Twisted Nightmare” would feature Bon Iver’s Justin Veronon, I was skeptical to say the least. The combination of Vernon’s haunting, tragic voice alongside Kanye’s robust wall of self-celebration seemed like a match made in a…well, a dark twisted nightmare. Then of course I heard “Nightmare” and realized Kanye’s turn toward a wide-open self-evaluation worked surpisingly well with Bon Iver’s signature sound. Kanye’s loneliness amidst the bitter vacuum of celebrity is the perfect parallel to Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever”, secluded in a log cabin with it’s combination of misery and building a still.
At the same time, the song “Lost in the World” and the album’s success made me wary that Justin Vernon may take a turn toward R&B, relying more heavily upon digital technology. I can’t deny that I did enjoy his first foray into auto-tune with “Woods”, but part of what made it a fun listen was it’s tongue-in-cheek nature, taking this overly processed crutch in modern music and creating something real and honest. Yet I didn’t feel like there was much more that needed to be explored in the voice-processing world.
Then I heard James Blake’s 2011 self-titled release, and I realized I had been so wrong. On the album, Blake creates that same haunting, sparse atmosphere and takes it fully into the realm of the digital to a level that Vernon only touched upon on “Woods”. The connection with Bon Iver only goes so far though with Blake stepping out of Vernon’s cozy cabin into the frigid Wisconsin cold.
Cold is the key word here; this album reminds me of walking through a blizzard, the howling wind creating a pocket of isolation, the blank white snow creating a curtain, hiding you from all other surroundings. Despite this setting of solitude, the synths and vocals send shivers up your spine like an arctic gust. On “Wilhelms Scream” Blake’s soulful voice sings of giving up on love, dreams, and simply falling into a drift of isolation.
This bleak message continues throughout the album, and the background music only furthers the message, creating icy sheets of echoing reverb. The synths and drum machine aid this disconnect, distant from Blake’s world of wallowing. The vocodor makes several appearances as well for the same reason: to represent this feeling of being solitary, of being inhuman, lifeless, heartless, like a machine. On a song like “Lindesfarne I” this is most evident, but even more apparent in the song is the use of silence. In fact, the moments of complete quiet are Blake’s best weapon.
An onslaught of silence on “Lindesfarne I”, followed by “Lindesfarne II”:
I connected with this album deeply upon first listen because of its forlorn outlook, but also the strange jolts and jerks that pop up from start to finish. Every song will take you in an unexpected direction, yet they all remain in that great white expanse of winter cold. Listening to Blake’s self-titled album almost makes me wish I could be back in the snowdrift laden plains of my home state Iowa…almost.