UK avant-garde electronic star proves why he's Beyonce's favorite sad sound sculptor
For a guy who specializes in quiet, forlorn music, James Blake can deliver quite an emotional wallop. Though he started out as a star of the London electronic avant-garde, his ability to mix downtempo dubstep textures with gospel-leaning piano balladry has won him writing credits on Beyonce’s Lemonade and the forthcoming Frank Ocean LP. Blake’s third album (all 76 minutes of it) reaches back to the abstract electronics and agile, brittle beats of his early EPs while pushing his songwriting towards new levels of sad urgent grandeur. Blake’s bell-clear tenor has never sounded more wounded – or more ethereal. “Radio Silence” deploys wintry pianos, weeping synths and meditative vocals to conjure soulful dread; “Choose Me” makes falling in love feel like falling into a void; and “Timeless” slowly evolves from a quiver to a banger – “you know you slide out when you slide in, with graceful shadow,” Blake sings. In these dark sonic surroundings, the moments of catharsis flash even brighter: Justin Vernon’s clarion vocals meld with Blake’s on highlight “I Need a Forest Fire,” a feverish plea for spiritual renewal with the optimism of spring’s first growth. Sensitivity without strength is just decadence – and fortunately for Blake, there’s plenty of fight in him.