First Impressions: James Blake's The Colour in Anything
Here's something I didn't think I'd ever say: it looks like surprise albums might be more than just a passing fad. At first this type of "anti-marketing" only worked for larger-than-life artists like Beyoncé. But in 2016 we've already seen unexpected releases with little to no fanfare from not only Beyoncé but Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and James Blake (and even Radiohead just yesterday).
Fans have been eagerly awaiting James Blake's followup to his sophomore album Overgrown for three years now, so it's interesting he chose to drop The Colour in Anything with less than a day's notice instead of steering into all the hype. After listening to it, however, it's clear a quiet release suits it more than a massive press campaign would. Of all the surprise albums in 2016, Blake's is the least self-affirming. When an artist like Beyoncé releases one, it explodes onto every music fan's radar with so much impact and self-confidence that it's pretty hard to ignore. There's a collective endorphin rush as everyone scrambles to listen to it, and regardless of how good it actually is, it's hard to not fall for it when you're that riled up. If Beyoncé's Lemonade is a giant bold exclamation point, The Colour in Anything is a 76 minute question mark. Its surprise release didn't have much of a commanding presence; it was more of a subtle, "oh, by the way, I made this thing... you guys can listen to it, or not, whatever, I don't want to impose or anything." It's melancholic and mournful, struggling to handle emotional strife with feigned composure.
Seventeen tracks is probably too long for a James Blake album. Back in 2013 Kanye West's Yeezus sparked a short-lived minimalist trend that saw artists limiting their albums to approximately 10 tracks, and it's a shame Blake—who's gone on record saying he's a Kanye fan—didn't take a page from that book. Don't let its length fool you though; The Colour in Anything is still a minimalist album (legendary minimalist producer Rick Rubin coproduced both albums, and his influence can be felt in both artists' explorations of space, repetition, and silence).
Protracted track list aside, this is a beautiful album that once again places James Blake at the forefront of postmodern singer-songwriterdom in a digital, post-dubstep era. Tracks like "Timeless" and "I Hope My Life" pull inspiration from electronic influences, and feature sparse arrangements of heavy synths. His softer side is showcased elsewhere, like on "I Need A Forest Fire," the delicate duet with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Hopefully these two men collaborate more in the future, because this is one of the prettiest, most soothing moments on the album. It's the a cappella "Meet You In The Maze," however, that serves as the tranquil foil to all of the angsty drum loops and saturated synths. This album closer is downright gorgeous—there's no other way to put it. Some of the tracks could probably have been whittled down a bit to shorten running time, but every second on "Meet You In The Maze" is perfect just the way it is. After 16 tracks of using music to navigate through turmoil and uncertainty, Blake sings "all those songs that came before you, they were ones of waiting / music can't be everything." I doubt I could find a recording that uses silence in a more nuanced, musical way.
This album marks the furthest Blake has gotten on his gradual journey to mold his amorphous music into something resembling traditional song structure. Unfortunately, that means that if you're like me and are partial to his more disjointed debut, this won't surpass it in your eyes. But if you prefer his sophomore release Overgrown, this will probably become your favorite James Blake album yet.