Like a Modern Day Roald Dahl - An Album Review

BUZZ*WORDS: Vulnerable, Ethereal, Human

On Louis C.K’s current press tour in support of his new show Horace & Pete, the comedian discussed his self-imposed exile from the internet. C.K explained that he gave his cell phone to his daughter, who he then instructed to set up a passcode on the device in order to prevent him from using it. An ironic spin on ‘parental controls’, if you will. Louis C.K. did this because he felt like he had grown addicted to his cell phone and more broadly, he had become too attached to the convenient and ever present connectedness of the internet. Louis C.K. reflected that he had focused too much of his attention on the cyberworld and in the process, he had begun to neglect his children, miss out on opportunities to communicate with people in person or learn through experience. This self-realization comes at a time when social media and technology permeate all aspects of our lives. Even music has become entangled with the networks of social media, with advertisements for new streaming services and promotions for singles bombarding our senses on every webpage or before every Youtube video. Indeed, this is a time when  some of the biggest pop songs are the ones that capture the technological and social media obsessed zeitgeist of the 2010s - look no further than Drake’s Hotline Bling or Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe?.    

The great paradox of the twenty first century is almost corny: we have so many means for connectivity yet we still lack communication. All the instagram posts, twitter updates and facebook statuses have decreased our attention spans and reduced our thoughts to fit the confines of character limits, leaving us unable to fully express ourselves. Emojis have replaced language, reducing our thoughts to mere smiley faces. We have become caricatures of ourselves through meme culture, falling into stereotypes more frequently than ever before. In this sense, it can be said that technology and social media especially, have made us more shallow than ever before. Enter James Blake’s third studio LP, The Colour in Anything, which may very well be the antithesis to social media culture. On his new album, James Blake cries out. He cries out for a generation that is self-conscious and constantly seeking validation. He cries out for a generation that has become so self-obsessed with filtered selfies that we have lost the ability to reveal our true selves. On this album, marked by the ethereal synths and clattering percussion of post-rock, post-pop & post R&B, Blake guides the listener. James Blake takes us on a journey that helps us understand how to feel and be human again in this age of technology. He wants us to feel emotions like we did when we first read Roald Dahl’s children’s stories of discovery and adventure (fittingly, the album artwork is designed by frequent Dahl collaborator Sir Quentin Blake) - and what a beautiful experience the album is.

Like C.K., Blake urges us to tune out all the noise of the social media world - he begs for a Radio Silence on the album’s introductory track. On Put That Away and Talk To Me, Blake beckons someone he’s with to put the phone away and come have a real conversation with him. This is remarkably relatable. How many times have you gone out to lunch recently with friends who end up spending majority of the time scrolling through instagram posts? On I Need a Fire Blake and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon want to burn down the barriers between people that have come to exist because of the anti-social nature of internet usage. On the album’s title track, Blake searches for the colour in anything as the world has become too bland and monochromatic in the age of texting and social media trends. He begs someone to love him in whatever way possible so long as they are honest about their feelings. The album is about vulnerability, honesty and self - acceptance at a time when all of the above are frowned upon.

But an album’s message is only as good as its sound. Luckily, the album’s soundscapes are masterfully crafted. The album, co-produced by legend Rick Rubin, has a minimalistic and garage sound that falls somewhere between Radiohead’s Ok Computer, Kid A and Bjork’s early work - with Blake’s unique touch and haunting vocals steering the ship. Point harkens back to Radiohead’s Everything in its Right Place, but with a twist. Blake proves to be a master of song progression and buildup. On single Timeless, the song begins with a sample of 50 Cent’s 21 Questions which then transitions into a Daft Punk-esque synth melody backed by fluid drums. The song reaches its climax with a Gesaffelstein-esque laser of a synth. Two Men Down is like a waltz set in a post-apocalyptic world...where everything lies in ruins but we don’t give a damn because we have a beat machine, an arpeggiator and each other so we sing and dance the universe away. On Choose Me, Blake asks for acceptance over shimmering synths, with his vocals heavy layered and slightly autotuned. His looped falsetto in the background is the final piece of the puzzle to the song, creating a moving harmony that is extremely memorable and borderline orgasmic. These combinations of sounds on the album somehow make it sound vast yet fragile at the same time. The sound is both futuristic yet nostalgic - something which proves to be entrancing.

Co-written by Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean, the album’s lyrics delve into the depths of human emotion. On F.O.R.E.V.E.R, Blake gets particularly poetic as he pleads “don’t use the word forever/we live too long to be so loved/people change and I can be tethered/we think we are the only ones”, commenting on the fickle and fleeting nature of human love and lust. On Modern Soul, Blake observes that he has been talking to so many people simultaneously that he has begun to lose touch with everyone, emphasizing the theme of communication (or lack thereof). On Always, Blake concludes that his current state of nirvana is how he always wants to feel, capturing the human desire to always be happy. On Love me in whatever way, Blake deals with a story of unrequited love, as he begs his love interest to reciprocate his feelings - something which is heart wrenching in its relatability.     

With The Colour in Anything, James Blake offers his most daring and bold project to date. It is cinematic in production and poetic in lyrical content. The album explores the spectrum of human emotion at a time when we are too afraid to admit how we feel. Blake, like Louis C.K., reminds us that there is a world beyond the screens in our palms and the monitors on our desks. Yes, the real world can be scary and confusing with all of its despair and grief. But Blake tells us that it’s all going to be fine - and like Roald Dahl when we were kids, he takes us by the hand and reassures us that it’s ok to get lost in the maze of it all. So put down this review...and listen.

 

The Colour in Anything by James Blake is a must listen album.

text - Yakov Medvedev