In Review: James Blake - Before
James Blake has always been known for his willingness to experiment. Since his 2011 self-titled debut hit the mainstream, Blake has pushed the envelope when it comes to music production, always conjuring new horizons. His signature tenor is more-or-less constant, but his sound continues to change. In his latest four track EP, James Blake has returned to his roots – all the way back to his days as an adolescent dubstep DJ.
“I was frustrated that there’s nowhere to go dance, and ironically, I ended up making a dance EP?” Blake said in a recent interview, “it’s not all dance music, but that spirit runs through it.” In many ways James Blake is the perfect candidate for a lockdown dance record – and he’s up for the job. Before gleefully melds the experimentalist through-line of Blake’s oeuvre with the corporeal immediacy of dance music. There’s a definitive harkening back to the dubstep radicals of the late noughties in Before. Anyone who, like Blake, has fond memories of losing it to Loefah, Mala or Kode9 after lights-on may well feel a pang of nostalgia at the cut time groove hinted at in certain tracks.
Before’s continuous call to the dancefloor however, is obscured by the harsh reality of today’s pandemic world. The clubs that Blake held so dear back in the day, heady nights that galvanised his career, are increasingly being confronted by encroaching destitution. Hard times are upon us and the EP registers this, that’s where Blake’s aptitude for innovation comes in. The music is constantly glitching, falling out of itself, shedding parts along the way. Before is a Frankenstein’s monster, an arrangement of musical ideas tenderly stitched together, all fragmented and unpredictable – and that’s the fun of it, you never know where it’s going to take you. This is an unstable record for unstable times, it’s an appeal to the communion of the dancefloor, just… not the dancefloor as we know it. All this is well illustrated in the video to ‘Before’, which showcases a montage of dancers losing themselves alone in their apartments, studios and gardens.
This is the most up-tempo, fun release we’ve seen from Blake in a while, and his voice suits it. Blake’s vocal approach is fragile and wavering, which always fitted the melancholia of his past projects, but in Before he seems to be enjoying himself, and it’s infectious. The record ends with ‘Summer of Now’, which begins with the understated premise that it’s no longer ‘the summer of 2015’ – too right. However, this wistful digging into the past is later countermanded by an optimistic recognition of ‘the summer of now’, a wide-eyed vision of a better tomorrow – at least, that’s how it feels musically.
Before is well worth a listen, it’s an expertly balanced aesthetic package – optimistic without naivety, melancholic without despair – a timely arrival.
Before it out now via UMG Recordings Inc. (Republic Records / Polydor Records)