Overblown and Overhyped

Overgrown – James Blake

It must be acknowledged that James Blake has developed quite a following since the release of his debut album, James Blake, in 2011. The follow-up, Overgrown, caused a lot of excitement in April this year, choking Facebook news feeds and the Triple J airwaves. Unfortunately, however, the new Blake record doesn’t live up to the promise of the first, swapping stripped-back instability for a more mellow but less interesting feel.

The album opens with the title track, “Overgrown,” which immediately introduces the defining characteristics of the album. Blake’s calm, even detached, vocals float over a simple underlying beat that leaves the lyrics in the foreground, at least to the extent that they are audible through the distortion and reverberation. Perhaps unusually for a modern pop (or urban funk/neo-soul/whatever micro-genre you chose) release, there is extensive use of dissonance, adding to the underlying tension and the sense of unease reminiscent of his first album. As the song progresses, the swelling synth strings add a gorgeous dissonance and tension; yet the song never builds to a climax, remaining unresolved and incomplete. Of course, this does ensure that the album flows without interruption into the next piece, “I Am Sold”. The problem is, however, that “I Am Sold” flows into “Life Round Here” in a similar way without ever seeming to progress anywhere either. Blake even manages to make “Take a Fall From Me,” which features RZA, blend into the general wash.

“Retrograde” does manage to inject some interest into the album, with its slightly raw vocals and occasional excursion out of the half-octave Blake habitually occupies. The relief is temporary, however, and the remainder of the album proceeds (although ‘proceeds’ implies movement) in much the same way as the first half, with the only relief coming from the raw cowbell in “Voyeur”. Overall, what little movement there is gets lost in the general wash.

Some musicians create songs and albums that tell stories or examine emotions. Overgrown, by contrast, explores layers of sound and musical effects in what seems to be an attempt to create a sonic landscape. Unfortunately, however, the view is a tad monotonous, and working through the album is a little too similar to driving through the Nullarbor at the proper speed limit. The flow between tracks (and within them) is so smooth it is tedious; and the album as a whole lacks the tension and imperfections needed to create a sense of life or interest. Overgrown is more polished and vocally stylish than Blake’s debut. It is, however, missing the jolts and variation needed to keep one awake. In hindsight, writing this review while listening to it was probably a mistake. I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open.