As a genre, dubstep isn’t known for smallness. Utilizing a three-prong attack of soul-shaking bass, thickly synthesized atmosphere, and sharp sound-effects pileups, dubstep typically engenders feelings of severe gloom, even without the aid of lyrics. Londoner James Blake is a 21-year-old dubstep producer who’s found not only his singing voice—a hauntingly soulful instrument, it turns out—on his full-length self-titled debut, but a way to convey the same deeply felt rainy-day melancholia using what feels like about 80 percent less music than his peers. This means he’s more efficient than dubstep pioneer Burial (or even the style’s commercial ambassador, Rusko) at communicating with a larger audience. James Blake is dubstep’s crossover moment, rolling back the hostile skronk and centering on a croon that rivals Antony Hegarty for lovelorn beauty.
Blake even tosses in a Feist cover for good measure. His version of “Limit To Your Love” would be pure novelty if he’d tricked it out with gratuitous rumble and thump. Instead, he focuses on the vocals, the keys, and the pregnant pauses between them, so that when the sour bass actually does drop and quickly recedes, a tiny moment becomes a titanic emotional event. “The Wilhelm Scream” operates in a similar manner, allowing the creaky singing and gutted lyrics—“I don’t know about my dreams / All that I know is I’m fallin’, fallin’”—to ring out over a subtly shifting bed of slow skitters and loudening synths.
Blake’s production emotes as much as his vocoder-frosted words. The two-part stunner “Why Don’t You Call Me” and “I Mind” makes like a series of field recordings jerking their way into orchestral grace. “I Never Learnt To Share” sounds churchly and funky. Though it’s a walking contradiction—the living embodiment of less-is-more, born of the Information Age—James Blake somehow makes perfect sense.