The Triumph of James Blake

“All I know about music is that not many people hear it. And even then, on the rare occasion when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours” – James Baldwin from Sonny’s Blues

James Blake’s triumph is ours. There is no cerebral rationalization or insider irony needed to maneuver his musical universe. While I ride hard (and unapologetically so) for the twisted genius of Lil B, James Blake doesn’t require the spark of a YouTube cooking movement to reawaken and revitalize his already captive audience. There is no question mark lingering above his success (whether or not he becomes your favorite artist is a separate issue altogether) rather there seems to be a quiet consensus of his roar rising. Every now and then, an artist’s popularity is not merely predicated on meaningless hype but a bubbling enthusiasm for a spirited new voice. And while Blake is hardly pioneering anything “new” or “groundbreaking,” he is producing and re-animating music that moves and activates listeners like some kindof beautiful, majestic British unicorn…or something.

Now imagine the exacting moment in which music breaks open and floods your spirit. It feels as though it was composed by the very physics of your body’s own force. This is the only miracle we have ever known; miraculous in how it escapes the chokehold grip of language. Indeed, we fear what we cannot describe, what we cannot control.  And yet, there is something profound and inescapable in surrendering to the power this music has over us –- a necessary hijacking. It’s often accidental and mundane. There are no explosions to literalize the feeling of breaking open (as there shouldn’t be).

I was first introduced to Blake’s music on Sunday morning (don’t read any religious fervor into this lol) when my dear friend Christine played “Wilhelms Scream” on the magical Technics her brother gave her over Christmas (siblings, take note). She insisted I listen on the headphones to be fully immersed in the listening experience. I am grateful to her for curating this initial impression so thoughtfully. Too often, we make snap judgments on music after a few rushed rotations on our generic computer speakers. Although to be fair, very little popular music is architected for deliberate and intimate listening. Blake disrupts these lowered expectations and laces his textured compositions with haunting harmonies and nuanced instrumentation. Blake truly understands the space of sound; he leaves the listener room to wander and breathe in each song. When I first heard “Wilhelms Scream,” I felt stretched, disarmed and naked yet rendered strangely legible. The song’s melancholia subtly encoded with a peaceful surrendering to the madness of living (and falling and turning and loving and falling some more) reverberated somewhere deep inside me. The song articulates a shitstorm of emotion stripped down bare to it’s most visceral, raw and basic elements. It hit hard.

I don’t know about my dreams
I don’t know about my dreaming anymore
All that I know is
I’m falling, falling, falling.
Might as well fall in.

I don’t know about my love
I don’t know about my loving anymore
All that I know is
I’m loving, loving, loving.
Might as well love you.

I don’t know about my love
I don’t know about my loving anymore
All that I know is
I’m turning, turning, turning,
Might as well turn in.

I’ve always admired song writers who can capture human complexity and contradiction in simple language. Blake effectively located the power of a gerund (-ing) in adding layered meaning to his emotionally resonant lyrics. As many critics have noted, his delivery is reminiscent of Bon Iver who similarly mastered the use of autotune with artful restraint. And just like Iver’s “Woods,” Blake’s “I Never Learnt To Share” or “Limit To Your Love” will have you awkwardly fighting tears in public on your commute back home (or maybe I should just speak for myself). For some, the evocative nature of Blake’s music is only suitable for specific times of day, activities, spaces (both mental and physical) to avoid any inconvenient breakthroughs or breakdowns. I would also choose another soundtrack for work; Blake is no background music but do you! In the meantime, anticipation builds as we await the release of his self-titled album James Blake (an 11-track album) to be made available as a digital download, CD and 12″ vinyl on February 7, 2011. Mark your calendars and support the man. Be sure to check out his lovely website for more information and downloads. ♥♥♥

5 Responses to “The Triumph of James Blake”
  1. Based God says:

    OMG ISA! This is Based God.

  2. katieburrett says:

    Such a good post, going to check out some more of his stuff now! x

  3. Ash says:

    What a beautiful song. I think I’m gonna check out more of his music too.

  4. Erin Duncan says:

    Dag, this post was the truth!

  5. Great post, great description of this amazing musician. My favourite part has to be the “beautiful, majestic, British unicorn”. 🙂

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