The Technicolor Ghost

A portrait of James Blake

By Milena Mc Closkey 10 September 2016

© 1-800-Dinosaur

The Technicolor Ghost
The 2015/16 Ballet season closes with an evening conceived by the American choreographer William Forsythe, a regular guest at the Paris Opera for more than thirty years now. From July 4 through July 16, 2016, audiences will have a chance to discover two of his seminal works, Of Any If And which is making its entry into the repertoire and a new, reworked version of Approximate Sonata. He is also offering a brand-new work based on seven songs from the latest album of the English prodigy James Blake, The Colour In Anything. Blake Works I marks the beginning of his collaboration with the musician, whose subversive use of pop reflects the choreographer’s own experimentations with the vocabulary of classical ballet. A portrait.

Bedroom Dubstep

In 2010, a music student from Goldsmiths College in London, his large frame bent over his synthesizer, composed and produced three EPs in the makeshift studio he had set up in his bedroom: The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke. These three works, each with its own very different style, heralded a multiplicity of musical worlds: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The young man composed adagiettos of dance music borrowing as much from R&B as from the sound effects of video games. That winter, James Blake took the “indie” music world by storm. His third opus leans towards minimalist sobriety whilst exploring the intimate relationship between the piano and voice. The piece entitled Klavierwerke is suggestive of lieder that have embraced the sounds of 21st Century dubstep. The title of the EP is a reference to the piano works of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. It is to the latter of the three that James Blake owes his sombre romanticism, expressing a modern-day melancholia whose reduced fieriness is made up for by turmoil and grace. And yet, the piece is also a homage to Berlin’s underground scene, itself a crucible of innovation in the field of dance music. James Blake experiments, alternates and juxtaposes layers of electro with moments that see the gradual suppression of sound into silence. A new sound is born.

© Ann Ray / OnP

A traveller above a frozen sea

James Blake’s music is best listened to with headphones clasped tightly over the ears in order to to penetrate the myriad of interwoven beats and enjoy the luminous bursts which catch us by surprise like unexpected clearings in a forest. His first eponymous album in 2011 affirmed his original approach to composition, with a strict use of subtraction reminiscent of William Forsythe’s “Poetry of disappearance”. On first hearing the album, the artist’s record label is said to have thought it was merely in the conception stage. Indeed, James Blake cultivates imbalance, sometimes with yawning crotchet rests and abrupt endings. The use of silence disconcerts and leaves the listener hanging at the musician’s fingertips. He makes less use of samples, his voice comes to the forefront yet often remains robotic, having been processed by a vocoder (also called an auto-tune) particularly, in the hypnotic ballads “Lindisfarne I and II” where the manner in which he juxtaposes the vocal lines is evocative of gospel. The icy spaces he creates and his chiaroscuro voice are reminiscent of the pared-down scenographies of Forsythe’s ballets, in which the interplay of light slices up the visible. James Blake’s music is similar to the picture of his face on the album cover: indiscernible, evaporating. His productions are not yet tailor-made for success; the cathartic pleasure of the listener is deferred, confiscated. Like a confession, the title "I Never Learnt to Share" affirms ad infinitum this only child syndrome. This penchant for the unfinished—sometimes present in his productions—goes hand in hand with his writing and the vulnerability with which he admits his helplessness and his weaknesses. Through his words, James Blake sketches the portrait of an anti-hero, a sublime misfit who has managed to charm an entire generation across the Channel.

Exposed/exploded solitude

The post-adolescent loner emerged from the underground to sign with a major label and produce his second studio album in 2013. It was with a heart truly marked by the discovery of love that the young Englishman cultivated Overgrown, whilst managing to avoid locking himself into the posture of a crooner. If the piano remains the staunchest ally of this Erik Satie fan, he remains true to his electronic roots with deftly orchestrated surges and tortuously demanding productions. James Blake’s powerful voice opens up and pervades us with a soul-like warmth and tragic, heart-rending falsettos. Step by step he positions song at the very heart of his work and, for the first time, it earns him a hit with “Retrograde”. Overgrown boasts songs with an anthem-like power without ever yielding to the superficial: each track is a node of disassembled beauty which seems to retain a trace of the intrinsic pain of perfectionist James Blake's creative process. Some reproach the doleful singer-songwriter for an overabundance of seriousness or gloom. The album is nonetheless awarded the prestigious Mercury Prize even though its author is barely twenty-five years old.

James Blake’s contemporary elegies, on the themes of love, solitude, the virtual, and miscommunication, finally allow a communion with the listener. From then on, his audience expands exponentially, catapulting him into the mainstream whether the purists like it or not. Indeed, the Londoner’s last two albums are testimony to the artist’s evolving generosity, primarily via the increasing number of collaborative projects with other musicians: particularly Brian Eno, Chance the Rapper, RZA and Wu-Tang Clan... The gurus of pop literally fall over themselves to be associated with Blake. He recently lent his voice to “Forward”, the most susceptible track of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest album, and he is also credited with writing and producing her opening song. It was also with the ever-discreet Justin Vernon (the singer of the Canadian folk group Bon Iver) and Frank Ocean (former member of the hip-hop collective, Odd Future) that the collaborative effort is the most rewarding and leads to several of the songs featured on James Blake’s latest opus, The Colour In Anything, released in May 2016.

© Ann Ray / OnP

The warmest colour

Three years of doubts, breakups, encounters, depression and joy make up the raw materials of this album which takes the form of an initiatory narrative. In its eighteen songs, he seems at last to espouse the dualities and contradictions of his musical personality and accept to allow outside contributors to free him from his obsessive need to control. The Colour In Anything is testimony to a calmer, more subdued relationship with the world marking the transition of James Blake’s musical milieu from shades of grey to colour. Songs like “I Need a Forest Fire”, with its blithe vocals from Justin Vernon, lend unexpected warmth to the Londoner’s romanticism. Indeed, he has written some of his freest and most accomplished compositions alongside the controlled chaos of “I Hope My Life” or “Points”. On this album, the theme of impossible love so dear to James Blake has inspired the poignant “Love Me In Whatever Way” and “f.o.r.e.v.e.r”. On that particular track, he murmurs “You can’t walk the streets like a ghost anymore”: Could this signal his abandonment of a “Poetry of disappearance” in favour of an idealised rebirth and an ethic of appearance? Mark Fisher, the British writer and music critic, sums up the artist’s journey in this way: “Listening to Blake’s albums in chronological order is like hearing a ghost gradually assume material form […] out of digital ether”. That ghost has now taken on a human guise embodied by the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, in a symbolic reconciliation of a mature artist who has come to terms with the world stage.    

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