James Blake: Progress in Retrograde

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan refined an alternative approach to folk music that helped redefine the music industry generally. Dylan proved that a song didn’t have to rely so heavily on its musicality, whether acoustic or electric; the audience could focus as much or more on the lyrics and the story they told. Even with Dylan fading from relevancy, people are still reminded of his impact and have started to look for the next great artist who will influence the course of musical history in a similar manner. UK-based artist James Blake deserves at least some consideration in this regard based on his innovative, appealing, and thoughtful body of work.

James Blake doesn’t identify with a specific genre. Some see him as an R&B artist, others as a soul singer, and yet others as the leader of the post-dubstep movement. Blake has grown his following by doing what is unexpected of artists in his line of work, whether this be picking up his computer and playing an hour-long set at one of the UK’s more prestigious nightclubs or making songs with Chicago and Brooklyn rappers. While these examples represent just a small portion of Blake’s creative activities, they do show who he is as an artist and why he will become an even more important musical figure in the current generation. His status will improve as a result of his blending of styles, focus on lyrics, and ability to create unique songs.

Blake experiments with multiple influences in most of his songs. His main style is grounded in Electro, R&B, Hip-Hop, and Folk, but he hasn’t limited himself to just these. He’ll often venture away from his own familiar paths to experiment with other sounds and rhythms, which shows what sets him apart from other artists of this generation. Not satisfied with making the same music as many of his peers, Blake’s goal is to break the mold that has limited most artists to making the same music for their entire careers.

His liberal yet well-balanced use of modulated synth lends itself to the post-dubsteb movement. Lush tones sync to the rhythm of a hip-hop beat, which is carefully contrasted by the natural and familiar acoustics of guitars and pianos. These sounds make your heart sink and rise to meet Blake’s artistic preference. Then there’s Blake’s voice, which has become the only constant in his world of ever-changing musical expressions. More soulful than most of his contemporaries, Blake can express depth of emotion through his voice alone. He says he owes this ability to his favorite soul artist, Sam Cooke, and one can certainly see similarities in the two artists’ works.

James Blake’s music does not end at the sound. In fact, that’s where it begins. He lures you into his world with his enchanting sounds and then traps you with his haunting and contemplative lyrics. His words mean almost as much to him as his music. This speaks volumes to his artistic priorities. For instance, “Retrograde” features a set of lyrics he wrote right after getting off the phone with a friend early in the morning after an infuriating conversation:

You’re on your own,
In a world you’ve grown
Few more years to go,
Don’t let the hurdle fall
So be the girl you loved. . . .

The last line of these lyrics stands out as the most important. As the title suggests and the lyrics perceptively underscore, many of us always run the risk of reverting back to a previous state, for better or worse. This is clever enough, until one realizes that the song implies the astronomical definition of “retrograde” explaining how two planets pass each other in orbit, represented by Blake’s haunting voice rising as the music falls at the end of each chorus. Not too many contemporary musicians demonstrate such playful virtuosity. Perhaps in a few years, a broad audience will pay full tribute to the important milestone Blake is setting for future generations.