James Blake: James Blake (Universal Republic) 

Glacial might be the best way to describe James Blake. The album is sparse and lilting, both robotic and warm-blooded. As a singer, he's got a post-Jeff Buckley croon. (Don't liken him to Antony Hegarty; Hegarty's too self-consciously theatrical.) But it's the pairing of Blake's robust voice with these wide, practically empty soundscapes that gives the album its magnetism.

Its sound falls under the marketing tag of "post-dubstep," and it is very post: post-Internet, post-cyborg, post-globalization. Blake is documenting a weirdly fragmented kind of subjectivity here. On "I Never Learnt to Share," synthetic noise with a curiously Arabian trill crescendos until it literally silences his voice, which is repeating "and I don't blame her" over and over.

There's something mechanized not only about the sounds the album offers, but also the selfhood that the artist is revealing. Repetition of phrases—almost Gertrude Stein-like in intensity—is a key ingredient here, snatches of communication that are robbed of meaning and reframed as empty or meaningless.

Though James Blake is inarguably a beautiful album, a sculpted one, an album that's as much about restraint and inference as it is about anything, it's also a genuinely unnerving one. That voice shrouded in sci-fi artifice speaking on "Lindisfarne I" and the fragmented vocal looping on "To Care (Like You)" are alien, seeping out from a layer of permafrost. The humanity in Blake's voice is sometimes present, often not. It's unsurprising that the first single is actually the album's one cover, a riff on Feist's "Limit to Your Love" that's expansively adrift.

More by Sean Bottai


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