James Blake

The Colour in Anything

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Little was heard from James Blake throughout an almost three-year period that followed Overgrown, his second straight Top Ten U.K. album. He appeared on an Airhead track and released a 12" on his 1-800-Dinosaur label, yet it wasn't until February 2016, during his BBC Radio 1 program, that listeners got their initial taste of album three. Drawn like a scene from a dissolving relationship that immediately precedes release and relief, "Modern Soul" hinted that the album could be a bit brighter with less of the anguish that permeated the singer/producer's first two albums. Another song, a vaguely aching minimal dub ballad, was aired two months later, possibly chosen because it too had a title, "Timeless," that could potentially wind up detractors. In late April, when it seemed like he might spring on his audience a tune named something like "Proper Music," Blake received a profile boost from Beyoncé, whose Lemonade prominently sported a pair of songs featuring his assistance. A couple weeks later, the long-delayed The Colour in Anything materialized at a length nearly that of his first two albums put together. Recording began in London. Once stalled by creative fatigue, Blake decamped to Rick Rubin's Malibu studio. The sunnier environment had no evident effect on the album's outlook. Regardless of location, Blake continues to deal in fraught romantic trauma, setting the album's tone immediately with "Radio Silence," a mix of mournful gospel and surging synthesizers in which "I can't believe this, you don't wanna see me" is stated something like ten times. As he sifts through the wreckage in puzzled and lucid states, he still stretches and distorts his frail but transfixing choir boy voice. A few lines are expressed with Auto-Tune fillips, some are enhanced through fine layering, and others are left unembellished, sometimes sunk into the mix of basslines that tap and thrum, percussion that gently skitters and scrapes, and synthesizers, applied like coating, that swell and swarm. Most disorienting is "Put That Away and Talk to Me," akin to a malfunctioning lullaby mobile playing a late-'90s Timbaland knockoff. Blake sought some help, not only from Rubin, who co-produced the Malibu sessions, but from Justin Vernon, who assisted with two songs and is heard on "I Need a Forest Fire," while Frank Ocean co-wrote another pair, including the all-voice closer, where Blake solemnly resolves -- ta-da -- that contentment is up to him. Compared to the self-titled debut and Overgrown, this a more graceful and denser purging, one that can soundtrack some intense wallowing or, at a low volume, throb and murmur unobtrusively in the background.

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