On James Blake’s Retrograde Motion

james blake

I fear that humanity and subtlety are dying virtues in music.   Every day, it becomes easier for artists to stack their work with more, as access to and ease of implementation of new sounds is pushed to a new horizon with the creation of every new song or instrument.  In the quest to create the sound of the future, an additive, maximalist process of creation is often unavoidable seductive.  In both vernacular and mindset, “hugeness” has become an uncomfortably universal end.   For many, making a tune that fucks the club up is enough, and even amongst those with higher artistic ends, faced with an existence moving further and further into the “realm” of the internet and social media, the novelty of our new mechanized consciousness is an enticing subject matter, especially for the electronic musician. I’m puzzled and perturbed that, in an age of endless imitation, nobody makes club music with a level of sensuality and soul remotely close to that of Jacques Greene.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and admire music that addresses the new digital landscape, but I worry that contemporary music neglects any truly inventive exploration of the “old-fashioned” troubadour-fodder of love, uncertainty and pathos. Call me nostalgic, but I’m starting to miss the beating heart and wit of the singer-songwriter.

Hit the jump to read on…

Some of my concern may be a prophylactic response to a radically changing mechanism by which we create and disseminate music.  For the vast majority of musical history, barriers of technical skill and the limitations of physical instruments hedged in the frontiers of the musical arrangement of sounds, and as such, the artist was forced to traffic in the nuances available to her given tools.  Compounding this, for a long time, the only means of hearing a piece of music was live performance, and so the musical artists of the day (the composers) were unable to hide poor songsmanship behind a veil of tight compression and heavy low-end.  As a result we have developed a musical canon that carries strong and extensively developed patterns of arrangement, melody, and lyricism, with the paramount pieces of the western musical tradition reaching an almost universal aesthetic form.

James Blake was a student of this tradition, and “Retrograde” is evidence that he has quietly become a master.  Approachable on the first few listens yet revealing dizzying set of complexities in repeated listens.  While the work hearkens to the singer-songwriter tradition, an artfully produced bed of synth tones, piano chords, and vocal layering, punctuated by a simple, open kick-snare pattern has replaced the oppressive homogeneity of the guitar/piano and voice soundscape while maintaining a respectfully referential tone.  The moments that drive the song are not the punches of drops, but rather sweeping entrances and the intricacies of a remarkable vocal performance.  Blake’s trademark untouchable production values act as the piece de resistance, rendering all of his compositional prowess into a beautifully piece of music.

While the previous paragraph is true for much of Blake’s discography, especially James Blake, the lyrical content doesn’t traffic in the same literary tone as Blake’s debut album.  Instead, “Retrograde” finds him using a universally accessible palette.  Thankfully (as now is about the time in an artist’s trajectory that popularity begets a loss of artistic integrity), the brushwork that ties the lyrical content into the arrangement of the song, coupled with lines like “It’s starkness of the dawn, and your friends are gone” keep the song far from the quagmire of generic romantic babble.  The emotions woven through his poetry are amplified by the surging harmonies and the melody that rises and falls amongst them.  Hopeful couplets over triumphant major chords give way to expressions of doubt and melancholy turns of the synth arrangement in a natural yet powerful cadence.

“Retrograde” ignores the micro-trends of the current electronic music landscape and instead takes its cues from R&B, a genre that is at once a touchstone for most of Blake’s contemporaries and the culmination of an entire lineage of American popular music.  However, his work transcends that entire canon, as he embodies both the masterful producer and singer, combining the force of Aaliyah and Timbaland under a unified artistic vision.  “Retrograde” combines the virtuosic production of his first release and last EP with the experimentation and vision of his middle EPs and album, all neatly tucked into the vehicle of a vocal performance that oozes soul and artistic power.

Nobody else is making music like this.  James Blake is carrying the torch of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bob Dylan, but rather than cast a light upon nostalgic structures and ideas, he is illuminating a path for the musicians of the future that pushes the frontiers of sound without losing the order and refinement of the past.  It is time that more people start paying more attention.

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