Album review: The Colour in Anything

Fin Johnston finds himself captivated by James Blake’s extended comeback offering

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One gets lost in James Blake’s new album The Colour in Anything. At 17 songs it’s a mammoth undertaking, but the listener is invited into Blake’s world of melancholy confusion, and is quickly captured by it. Disbelief characterises the first section of the album, Blake singing, “I can’t believe you don’t want to see me anymore” on opener ‘Radio Silence’. The lyric is beautiful, with Blake crystallising the doubt and a devastation of having one’s heart broken in jarringly simple language. His voice cries against the wash of synthesisers, fighting against the hammering, rising mass, which moves him into a pained, humble shout: “I don’t know how you feel”. The beautiful choral tone he has isolates him within the wash of sound that the song becomes: the lyrics are solemn, childish perhaps. Blake is vulnerable: “Just please, more time”, he half-asks. He grants himself it. This allows him to create space within the songs, and they have a cavernous quality, making the work feel even larger than it already is.

On ‘Points’, a sharp, whirring alarm rises unbearably, Blake’s voice vaulting with it, only for him to cut everything, he coolly speaks, “It’s sad that you’re no longer her”. This is Blake at his best, with ‘Love Me in Whatever Way’ again giving a central role to his stunning choral voice. ‘Timeless’ sees Blake at his more experimental and contemplative. Over the lattice of synths, kick drums and warped, shifting, refrains Blake sings, “I’m acting my age”. Blake is here playing homage to the underground electronic scene that he has grown out of, and making a comment upon the narrowing divide between commercial pop and electronic music. Blake has mastered this art of melancholy electro-pop, bringing together ostensibly disparate sounds into a cohesive, textured synergy.

‘f.o.r.e.v.e.r.’ sees Blake alone at the piano, and it is raw with emotional power. It has the feel of a song recorded in one take as was the case for ‘DLM’ from Overgrown. His falsetto is stunning, and the final 30 seconds are heartrending, Blake again proving himself as an accomplished lyricist, singing, “I noticed just how slow the killer bees wings beat,/ and how wonderful,/ how wonderful, /how wonderful you were”. His voice climbs down from falsetto, seeming to lull the keys into outro.

Perhaps the standout song of the album is ‘I Need a Forest Fire’, on which he collaborates with Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s opening cry of “Hoo” is responded to by Blake: “nice”, he mutters in the backdrop of the studio, apparently enjoying the relief from loneliness that Vernon provides. It is touches like these that add to the emotional authenticity of the album. Vernon and Blake have worked together before, on ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir’ but ‘I Need a Forest Fire’ is a more accomplished piece. Blake provides a refrain, with Vernon launching into the track, his voice soaring over the stuttering bass and kick drum in one of the album’s finest turns. It is the space that is created which again astounds, the song moving effortlessly, from a duet o f powerful, swelling harmonies to Blake and Vernon isolated from one another, their respective parts clattering into one another as the song falls to conclusion. ‘The Noise above our Heads’ is unremarkable as is ‘My Willing Heart’ and ‘Waves Know Shores’. They are, perhaps, extraneous, but they remain quietly moving, and they contribute to the mass of melancholy that ‘Choose me’ accentuates. This song is a demonstration of Blake’s masterful ability to take a song up to a roaring climax, as he does on songs such as ‘Life Round Here’ and ‘I Never Learned to Share’ from his two previous LPs. The title track appears late in the album, and by this time he seems more comfortable with the loss he has suffered, but no less pained.

The album is a maze of swollen soundscapes through which Blake’s vocals cut a path; a path that seems to slowly circle towards self-belief. The length of the album has been viewed as problematic by some, but I feel Blake intends the listener to get lost in the 17 songs, to join with Blake, to meet him in the maze, as his heavily vocoded voice trills on the album closer ‘Meet Me in the Maze’. Blake’s three year silence has been broken, and the release of The Colour in Anything seems like an effort to free himself from the isolation that the 17 eddying, labyrinthine tracks capture wonderfully

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