Amid piles of praise for James Blake’s minimalism, icy soulfulness, and overall potency, a small criticism was levied against his first LP: The songs sounded a bit like sketches, like the incomplete or truncated sandboxing of a budding producer discovering his voice. On Overgrown, Blake’s second full-length, it’s apparent that this is just his mode, and it’s a style that he is diligently perfecting and owning.
Blake is more concerned with meaty middle development through repetition and layering than dramatic, lengthy intros and conclusions or standard verse-chorus structure. The progression of Overgrown is largely similar to Blake’s self-titled debut, undulating between highly subdued, piano-based tunes and the pounding dance music that makes him tick. The title track is an elegant example: A long, 32-bar stanza is repeated twice and then riffed upon, helped along by a shrouded cut-time dance beat. Blake repeats this wan, displaced lament: “I don’t want to be a star / or a stone on the shore / or a doorframe in a wall when everything’s overgrown.”
James Blake’s uniqueness has much to do with the middle path he walks between folk and pop. His penchant for straightforward crooning (at full force when he covers, say, Joni Mitchell) lends itself to a narrative style. But he dabbles equally in other pop forms and emotional collage. “Life Around Here” nods directly at Timbaland, with a beat that sounds like it could have come out of a basement in New York circa 1994, Blake plucking sensory tidbits from the ether and patching them together. Hip-hop rears its head, too, with the RZA-assisted “Take A Fall For Me” sticking out as the most straightforward and naked lyricism on the album by a stretch. James Blake’s talent is in his ability to smoothly synthesize disparate influences; his willingness to grow and develop while doing so is fascinating and frequently rapturous.