Whenever I defend dubstep, I find myself mentioning three people: Four Tet, Burial, and James Blake. Though Four Tet isn’t “really” dubstep, he’s on the same level as the rest, and serves as a midway point between what Blake and Burial do: they use their art as an altar where they worship the human voice. It’s clear on Untrue (a milestone of the genre) that William Bevan (aka Burial) is a worshiper of the power of the voice, perhaps more than anyone else in his field.
To me, James Blake stands at the forefront of the genre. He’s currently one of the most prominent producers, and one of the more vocal. Recently, he came out against American producers, and their idea of things. If you’ll bare with me:
“I think the dubstep that has come over to the US, and certain producers– who I can’t even be bothered naming– have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market where there’s this macho-ism being reflected in the sounds and the way the music makes you feel. And to me, that is a million miles away from where dubstep started. It’s a million miles away from the ethos of it. It’s been influenced so much by electro and rave, into who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound, almost like a pissing competition, and that’s not really necessary. And I just think that largely that is not going to appeal to women. I find that whole side of things to be pretty frustrating, because that is a direct misrepresentation of the sound as far as I’m concerned.”
In just a few words (maybe more than a few, but you get the idea), he managed to air a very real complaint with the state of music. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a young kid who “really likes dubstep,” but will mention Skrillex and Deadmau5 first and foremost when talking about the genre. It’s a style fueled mostly by testosterone, with less regard for the sound they are making, but more for the fact that you can dance to it. James Blake the album is not a dancing record, and that’s what makes it special. It was made in a time-honored tradition of making dubstep that was meant for your living room, where you sit, and have a glass of wine with your lover. It’s sensual and mellow, and most decidedly not part of any pissing contest. And that’s part of what makes it beautiful.
Stepping back a moment, I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention the fact that Blake, like Will Bevan, is a voice worshipper. It’s omething that is instantly noticeable when you listen to the record; just a few short moments into Unluck, Blake’s chopped-and-skewed voice comes into the mix, intoning a simple message about the album as a whole: “Treated walls, care for me.” In five words, he manages to speak volumes about his lot in life, and though it’s so small in scope, it says it all perfectly. This simplicity serves as a pseudo-M.O. for James Blake, where it’s okay to let the music and the tone of the song speak for itself, rather than bothering with overdone strings of lyrics. “I Never Learnt to Share,” for instance, builds slowly and tensely off of one single repeated and echoed phrase: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them.” It’s incredibly simple, and yet you understand what he’s saying completely.
One of the focal points of James Blake is his stark rendition of Feist’s “A Limit to Your Love,” which echoes the slow build of the original, but strips it down entirely until it’s almost nothing but a piano line. He conveys the central point behind Feist’s version of the song, but in keeping with the rest of the record, uses half the words that she does. It’s almost magical how he manages to do it, and he does it on every song here.
Truly, my only complaint about James Blake is that it feels a little too minimalist. Blake’s ability to be the Rachel Ray of R&B (meaning, working with the bare minimum in his arsenal to make something wonderful) is possibly unmatched, but a start-to-finish listen of the album almost feels like walking through an unfinished house. It’s clear that this was his intent, but it’s almost disheartening. Blake is a young man full of promise, and he uses all of it to make albums that feel like they’re half silence. It’s a minor complaint, to be sure; his ability to work with those silences and change the mood of a room entirely is ingenious. It just makes me crave more.
Dubstep from Europe feels at complete odds with what is going on here with the people using the name, it almost feels unfair to use that name. There will always be arguments about what “punk” really means, and the same is true of “goth,” and “indie,” and pretty much any genre that isn’t staunchly defined. However, it seems to me that, no matter what, James Blake is still a lot closer to where dubstep started than anyone else at the forefront of the disagreement. No matter where you stand, and how you feel about what “dubstep” means, I can give you one small piece of advice, one that Blake himself would likely appreciate, for its concise nature: Keep watching this man.