I remember when I first listened to James Blake’s Modern Soul in February, it was like a breath of fresh air. With its echo-drenched electronic beat and faded piano chords, the song revealed a brand new James Blake – stronger, bolder, developed as a person and a musician. For me, the title of the song had nothing to do with the ‘soul’ as a music genre, but it was rather about the soul inside of our bodies, and, what’s more important, about a ‘modern’ one that witnesses global crisis, pain, inequality, violence, and terror everyday and still wants to grow. Denoting the renunciation of the past and the new beginning, the song was hinting at some revolutionary changes in Blake’s own style of melancholy, dub-inflected songwriting. Perhaps, that’s why when Blake surprised everyone releasing his “The Colour in Anything” album last Thursday, critics immediately started examining it on a petri dish, in hopes of finding the cells of the novelty.
“The Colour in Anything” is James Blake’s third studio LP, and the follow up to his 2013 LP, “Overgrown”. Despite having one track fewer than the 18 promised, the album seems a bit protracted and long, with recognisable spacious and textured production influenced by R&B, gospel, and British dance music. Seven of its 17 tracks were co-produced by Rick Rubin (American superstar producer, former co-president of Columbia Records who holds eight Grammy Awards), and mixed and mastered at his Shangri-La studios in Malibu. The vibe of Southern California, friendship, and new love should have been reflected in the album, but still – it’s made for melancholic rainy days. Pitchfork rates this album a 8.2 out of 10, naming it “wonderfully messy dive into maximalism.” The Observer, NME, and The Guardian give it 4 out of 5 stars, the latter suggests “Blake’s the only person who can make the space in electronic pop sound like a void.”
The 27-year-old British producer, having already achieved the status of a vanguard of minimal and sensitive electronic pop, was expected to make another groundbreaking change in the music industry with the new album. Since Blake’s debut in 2011, his distinctive sound has become increasingly influential, with artists like Beyonce, Kanye West, and Drake taking it into the mainstream. In his recent interview with The Guardian, Blake says: “When I first started copying dubstep rhythms but using gospel-tinged, classically tinged keyboard playing, that was the thing that separated me, but now it’s something that other people do, too. The whole night-time torch-song concept is now basically a pastiche… To put it bluntly, I’ve been validated.” Madonna calls his music “the kind of thing that makes me jealous”; Drake samples him; Beyoncé’s features him on Lemonade, where he contributes vocals and production on “Forward” and co-writes “Pray You Catch Me.” Moreover, the echoes of Blake’s austere and melancholy sound can be heard on the trendy productions of London Grammar, Jack Garratt, Låpsley and FKA twigs. “The xx set the precedent and I set the further precedent, and the music world has bent to that sound,” Blake says in the same interview with The Guardian. “It’s like the opposite of punk, isn’t it? I’ve subdued a generation. That will be my legacy.”
However, the moment of being ‘validated’ by the mainstream, which Blake finds immensely flattering, was a point at which he actually must have made a crucial decision: To change in order to stay the same. Blake’s first idea for his third album was to make an “outward-looking, aggressive, hip-hop-influenced record” with guest stars including Kanye West, but he ended up collaborating only with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, an old friend. “I wanted to open up and be more outgoing,” he says. “The only way I got there was to work on my fears and actually become a more open person, not just appear to be one. The record became a commentary on my life rather than me becoming part of the rest of the world.” His new album proves that James Blake is nothing like Kanye West or Beyonce or Drake (in a good way). He is more of an innovator than a leader. Pop music and its idols exist for the masses, that’s why each track is made by a group of high-profile musicians who research the latest trends in music industry and, generally speaking, play it safe when it comes to releasing a new song. Whereas James Blake sits at the piano or in the studio, intuitively trying to approach the sublime. “The Colour in Anything” sounds more maximalist, eclectic, and… happy. Despite the fact that he sings almost exclusively about miscommunication (“Sorry I don’t know how you feel”), loosing love (“It’s sad that you’re no longer her”), depression (“Where is my beautiful life?”) and giving up (“I want it to be over”), articulating the desires and problems of a modern person (“Do you like it when your heroes lose?”; “We just wanted our own space / And everything we like”). In his recent interview with Pitchfork, Blake confesses: “I listened to my old music and I really didn’t sound like a happy person. I wouldn’t want to be one of those artists that keeps themselves in a perpetual cycle of anxiety and depression just to extract music from that.” In the song “The Colour in Anything”, which shares the title of the album, he expresses that fear of loosing the ability to find the colour in anything. And while James Blake’s “Colours” still reveal mostly greys and deep blues, this album is actually about starting over.