Writing this article made me realise just how much I love James Blake and how dear his music is to me. How does his new single sit in comparison to his esteemed repertoire?
The old ones are the best?
I’ve been in love with James Blake’s music ever since his 2010 breakout single, Limit to your Love. Those were the days when dubstep was very much the thing on everybody else’s iPod, whilst my iTunes library’s contemporary content came mostly from more traditional four-piece indie acts. Hearing Blake’s work helped me realise for the first time that a newfound diversity in ways of producing sounds didn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of music which could tug at one’s heartstrings.
His second album, Overgrown, followed in 2013 and soundtracked an era which I now look back on as simultaneously both the best and worst of times. Retrograde allowed James to show off frankly staggering vocals, plus synths which managed to conjure up feelings which swoop from initial unease to eventual euphoria. The album’s titular track is a melancholy masterpiece on as powerful an emotional level as the one which first launched his career.
Three years later, we were treated to the Colour in Anything, whose Quentin Blake-illustrated cover is one which I was delighted that we could pay tribute to as part of Label’s print edition last January. The album’s themes were perhaps even more angsty than his past work – Radio Silence dealt with a particularly painful breakup and features incredulous lyrics such as “I can’t believe you don’t want to see me”, while Put That Away And Talk To Me was a by-product of over-indulgence in a certain class B substance during a rocky spot in the album’s production.
Although eighteen months had passed since the album’s release, I Need A Forest Fire still made the top ten on my 2017 Wrapped playlist. Both James Blake and Bon Iver are hugely talented artists in their own rights and the combination of the two lightened up what was otherwise a dark time on the world stage. Its themes of wanting to burn it all down and start again had an eerie resonance throughout a tumultuous year. Their harmonies were wonderful, and a candid exchange which can be heard on the intro, as well as the pair’s perfectly pared-down rendition at Glastonbury, helped make their collaboration one of the most adorable things ever.
Blake’s got a new face (ish)
In case I didn’t make myself clear in that first section, I’m very fond of James Blake’s previous work.
His new single’s called Vincent: which is a tribute to Van Gogh that was first released by Don McLean in 1972. It was the first single McLean released after American Pie (the track he’s most famous for) and it topped the charts in the UK back in its day. Blake has apparently taken to covering it during his time on the road, and chose to record a studio version last month.
It’s different to Blake’s previous work. As much is obvious from its opening bars, which show it’s more in the vein of his debut single’s minimal style than the walls of sound we’ve become accustomed to hearing on his more recent work. I’ll admit that I spent my first listen waiting for the sort of wobbling crescendo first heard on Limit to your Love (which was also a cover; the song was originally performed by Feist), though by the end I was glad that it didn’t. The reverse-Dylan (going back from electric to acoustic) approach works a treat and it’ll be interesting to see if a similar theme infuses more of his new releases.
McLean’s original is full of the same bittersweet sense of regret as his most famous work, but is nevertheless quite heartwarming by the time it finishes. Blake’s got a delightful singing voice, and I’m not sure it’s ever sounded quite so full and warm as on this track. The fact that it’s coupled only with a soft piano backing track makes Vincent all the more tender, though the hint of reverb added on occasional words acts as a playful reminder of exactly who we’re dealing with.
James’s choice to cut back the instrumentation in comparison to the original was never in doubt, and I think the choice to replace Mclean’s acoustic guitar with the aforementioned grand piano helps to give his cover a more sombre tone, reminiscent of his cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You.
The track ends with the line “They would not listen / They’re not list’ning still / Perhaps they never will”. Blake’s profile will ensure that plenty of his fans give this one a spin, and if they’re half as enamoured with it as I was with the track’s final note, I daresay he might even get more of a following as a result. If not, I’ll quite happily make up the numbers to keep it as high as I can on my ‘most listened to’ list for the next few months or so.