Release Date – 6th May 2016
There has long been rumour of a curse that accompanies winning the Mercury Prize. Despite a cash prize of £20,000 and unprecedented album sales spikes following a win, recipients of the award can fade into obscurity or deliver a less than impressive follow up to their award winning album. The Colour in Anything is James Blake’s defiance of such a curse and his most expansive album to date musically, lyrically, and in its whopping 76 minute run time.
Despite the surprise release of The Colour in Anything, the album has been nothing if not anticipated. Originally titled Radio Silence and anticipated for release last year, the album never materialised. New material was released quietly by Blake during his fantastic Radio 1 residency in the form of lead single Modern Soul and then later the release of Timeless, with word that Radio Silence would consist of “18 or so tracks, one about 20 minutes long.” As to a release date, Blake remained ironically silent on the airwaves. When Quentin Blake murals began to appear in New York and London, subsequently being retweeted by Blake and his label mates on 1-800-DINOSAUR, it became apparent that the long overdue follow up to Overgrown was imminent. Timed (unintentionally) a week after Beyoncé released Lemonade, which featured the Blake/Knowles co-written track ‘Forward’, Blake’s promotion campaign seemed to create itself through media speculation despite precious little fanfare or hype from James Blake himself.
“an exploration by Blake to see how far it is physically possible to push this gruelling darkness in his music before it simply becomes too much”
It is this subtlety that manifests itself in Blake’s music. The content is familiar; spacious compositions permeated with pure sub-bass and vocoder laden lyrics have long been a staple of Blake’s music and once again appear in The Colour in Anything, yet this time they feel more accomplished than ever before. Album opener Radio Silence reassures with familiar lyrical themes that pervaded prior albums, borrowing lyrics from Bill Wither’s ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier,’ and submerging the listener into the forlorn love-lost world of Blake once again: “I can’t believe this, you don’t want to see me”. The reverb drenched synth that has become synonymous with Blake returns to deliver climactic crescendos that intertwine high-pitched tender vocals with a discordant electronic accompaniment. This combination of the sensitive and the industrial electronic components continue to be a presence throughout The Colour in Anything, building on the already established blocks created in Overgrown’s lead single ‘Retrograde’. Whereas ‘Retrograde’ can feel jarring and forced, lead single Modern Soul represents perhaps the truest accomplishment of Blake’s utilisation of electronic and acoustic genres combined, and natural evolution of ‘Retrograde’. Structurally, the two songs are similar: both open with simple, spacious piano chords, tenor voice, and culminate in a dissenting electrical breakdown. Modern Soul, unlike ‘Retrograde’, notes and incorporates the importance of a gradual crescendo. The post-dubstep industrial beat leaks through and engulfs the song without detracting from the base, creating a layered instrumental with afrobeat tom drums that pays homage to soul music whilst progressing it into the modern day.
The electronic components of The Colour in Anything are, at times, darker and heavier than any of Blake’s previous album offerings. A look into Blake’s catalogue will reveal his long standing affiliation and affection for dance music; from the pioneering of dance genre post-dubstep with EP’s such as CMYK, to remix work and dance production under the moniker Harmonimix. As such, James Blake toes the lines of a double life, touring with his label 1-800-Dinosaur to provide their unique blend of dance music to underground clubs whilst simultaneously performing heart-breaking love songs on prime time American television. This duality has been dividing at times: the ‘original’ Blake fans, who only listen to his dance EPs, and the fans who do not even know it exists. The Colour in Anything, whilst not being the definitive step in combining the two, is certainly a start.
There are times when this album transcends into a bass heavy dance album, with much owed to the production from Rick Rubin. I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix) turns 8 lines into nearly six minutes of progressive electronic bassline and name checks Blake’s label. Timeless, originally stated to feature Kanye West (and perhaps better off for not,) similarly incorporates hectic dance-floor builds that could set clubs ablaze across the country, with its brooding dark synthesizer escalating into a chaotic apex and synthesised repetition that possess the cathartic quality necessary for ravers nationwide to lose their minds. Points, while progressing very little from earlier work, instead simply refining it, holds the accolade of grittiest, darkest electronic elements on the album. The gnarling growl of bass spirals into a screeching akin to a kettle boiling, and pushes the form to its very limits only to cut off mid frenzy as if it were an exploration by Blake to see how far it is physically possible to push this gruelling darkness in his music before it simply becomes too much.
“The space and the silence still exists; James Blake has just learnt to find the colour in it”
Yet for all the gruelling darkness pervasive in the album, The Colour in Anything promises hope and offers James Blake at his most personal and introspective. The darkness inherent in production is nullified by spacious piano ballads such as f.o.r.e.v.e.r. In the face of all the aforementioned experimentation in extremity, we also experience James Blake at his simplest in the form of a simple melancholy piano composition delivering Blake at his most vulnerable. Despite f.o.r.e.v.e.r. coming too early in the album and providing too much of a lull after such an intense start, The Colour in Anything proves the success a simple ballad can achieve in an album, if executed correctly, and upstages f.o.r.e.v.e.r. on every level. An introspective soliloquy that lays Blake’s fears for the world to see, The Colour in Anything extends the narrative of relationship issues and the desire to see the world as the colourful warm place it should be.
Blake leads further away from the darkness with I Need a Forest Fire featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a beautiful collaboration that inhibits all the warmth necessary to contrast the darkness earlier in The Colour in Anything. Vernon and Blake sound as captivating as ever, each voice complimenting the other in an intertwining duet and a further example of why a collaborative EP of the two as ‘Fall Creek Boys Choir’ should exist. Vernon further lends a hand in album highlight Meet You in the Maze that is unmistakably reminiscent of Bon Iver’s ‘Woods’. The vocoder laced acapella is confessional and powerfully emotive, delivering the most personally confrontational lyrics of the album: “All those songs that came before you/They were once awaiting/Music can’t be everything.” Blake puts himself on display for the world to see and further provokes himself to question his artistry, ultimately to consider the warmth of life that exists outside of his music.
The change of title from Radio Silence to The Colour in Anything is anything but insignificant. Whereas space and subtlety has always dominated James Blake’s work, warmth and optimism has not. Whilst maintaining the same lyrical content of heartbreak and self-worth that is ever present in past output, the departure is palpable in tone, reflected by Quentin Blake’s watercolour album art.
The space and the silence still exists; James Blake has just learnt to find the colour in it.
Images: Universal Music 2016; Quentin Blake 2016