James Blake’s The Colour In Anything perfects empty noise


Since a chance encounter with “The Wilhelm Scream” nearly five years ago, I’ve trusted James Blake with an irrational fervor reserved only for the most favorite of favorite artists. I trust his skills as a musician, both as a soulful vocalist with singer-songwriter roots and as an electronic producer capable of recreating natural phenomena on his mixer. I trust him, so when he announced that he was dropping his third full-length LP, The Colour In Anything, with four hours’ notice (a tweet: “The Colour In Anything will be released tonight at Midnight (BST)”), I listened immediately, trusting that this would be a masterpiece. My blind faith was rewarded. After three years in hiding, James Blake was back.

I listened to the album a few hours after Midnight (BST) on Thursday evening, glass of wine in hand and my mind lost to the music. I personally consider James Blake’s last LP, Overgrown, to be a North Star of sorts when it comes to electronic talent, but The Colour In Anything wholly eclipsed that record. TCIA is quite long (seventeen tracks long), and it’s hard to listen to sometimes. It’s challenging, an overwhelming wave of sound and noise that leaves your head buzzing, but that’s what makes it so satisfying. James is charting entirely new territory here, scored by his trademark juxtaposition of domineering synth and delicate vocals, of clinically precise build-up followed by cathartic release. The Colour In Anything is a journey: touching, terrifying, and thrilling all at once. It’s a much more sincere, much more personal project than Overgrown or its predecessor James Blake, and it covers a much greater range than any of his previous work ever did, both lyrically and musically. You guys, this album is so damn good.

The first single from The Colour In Anything set everyone’s expectations ridiculously high. “Modern Soul” is a triumph of atmospheric vocals and empty space, with haunted piano keys drifting off into an intricately layered cloud of fuzzy, static-shocked synth as James consolidates his fame with the rest of his life. The pre-TCIA era was relatively grayscale; arriving three years since his last work, “Modern Soul” was a bright flash of lightning blue on an otherwise nonexistent plane. It was brilliant, and fans were hooked, ready for more. Instead, James’ next move was to immediately retreat from the spotlight. He asked for patience, promising that his best work was on the way; the world threw tantrums, demanding a closer look at the abstract composition hiding in the back of his head. We heard nothing in response until last week, when he gave us an album that clocks in at over 75 minutes.

It takes some time to reach “Modern Soul” on the album; rather than lightning blue, The Colour In Anything opens with a stormy grey. It hasn’t started to thunder yet, but you can feel electricity in the air, underscored by a morose piano loop. “I can’t believe this / you don’t want to see me,” he drones on the first track “Radio Silence,” looping it over another equally pervasive line, “There’s a radio silence going on.” The vocals clash. The synth buzzes anxiously, collapsing and crashing into itself at 2:40. The message cuts. “I don’t know how you feel / I’m sorry I don’t know how you feel,” James laments, begging a ghost to rematerialize; that’s all he needs to say, and it hurts.

The album continues down this road, skies darkening as it surges forward. The next two tracks, “Points” and “Love Me In Whatever Way,” feature Rick Rubin co-production credits and, uncoincidentally, showcase what is probably the nastiest, heaviest synth on the album. “My Willing Heart” and “Waves Know Shores,” Rick Rubin productions with Frank Ocean co-write credits further down the tracklist, are cautious expressions of doubt, and Rubin’s heavy-handed production meshed with Ocean’s lyrics results in a graceful poetry that pairs seamlessly with James’ languid piano. It’s a combination we’ve seen in some of James’ most powerful tracks — think “Retrograde”, and how he expresses emotional turbulence so concisely, driven by whirring beats and discordant, stormy synth work.

In The Colour In Anything, James takes his impeccable, dizzying attention to detail and filters it through influences that range from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus to vintage Burial and Aphex Twin to contemporary R&B wunderkinds Devonté Hynes and Frank Ocean, whose influence is notable beyond the lyrics he helped compose. James’ influences on this album have been more hip-hop oriented than anything before, leading to some extremely self-aware and dynamic production — where some songs would have fallen short, inter-genre influences infused his numbing, ever-present synth with new life. Take, as notable examples, “Noise Above Our Heads” and “Timeless” (the song that has already become notorious as “the song that Kanye was almost on, but ultimately wasn’t on”). These tracks are frantic exercises in vocal sampling and asymmetric beatmaking in his signature subtle, sparse auditory landscapes, and they could smoothly fit into contemporary hip-hop charts off of rhythm alone.

The overarching narrative in The Colour In Anything — a narrative of washed up, rained out relationships — ultimately comes to a head at “Choose Me”: nearly six minutes of organized chaos where James is seeing red, where he lashes out at his loved ones, at himself, and at the sheer absurdity of being trapped in a relationship with no future. “Choose Me” marks a significant turning point, both on The Colour In Anything and in James Blake’s musical evolution. The track features the muffled screams of a man whose sense of normalcy is beginning to crumble apart at the hands of the person he trusted most to preserve it: “I’m not looking to hold you down,” James cries, “I’d rather you chose me every day.” The cries build and hectically circle each other, picking up remnants of sound from heavy percussion and droning synth, gradually climbing in pitch until morphing into pained, autotuned wails. The sheer amount of unrestrained emotion on this track is something that we’ve never really seen from James Blake, but it’s such a welcome state of catharsis because it’s such a well-done state of catharsis. The only criticism is length: a little over five minutes isn’t enough of this.

“Choose Me”, so intense and violent, tempers out into “I Need A Forest Fire.” There is a hush, the only sound that of a settling silence, when Justin Vernon as Bon Iver breaks through the tinkling, ethereal void with a sudden, breathless whoo. James Blake has an uncanny ability to bring out the best in his ridiculously talented collaborators (a standout feature in Queen Bey’s Lemonade only served to further underscore this talent), and his working relationship with Justin Vernon has reaped some of the most poignant music in modern-day electronica. “I Need a Forest Fire”, with a heavy influence from Bon Iver, is perhaps the most elegant track on TCIA, with simple, dreamy chimes underscored by an insanely powerful bass line that leaves you breathless. A friend described this song as, “3/4ths adore this feeling, 1/4th hate this feeling, because I don’t know what to do with myself,” and that’s the point — James doesn’t know what to do with himself, either. Forest fires are devastating natural disasters, but they can eventually lead to an environmental rebirth. In a way, that’s what James wants, be it creatively, romantically, or simply personally: to begin anew. “To burn it like cedar,” James and Justin harmonize, “I request another dream / I need a forest fire.”

James Blake’s personal woes and musical experimentations are mapped out across other tracks on TCIA. “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” is the definition of melancholy, a stripped down, heartbroken tear-jerker in the mold of his 2011 “Measurements”, and “Two Men Down”, one of his more exploratory treks into surrealist, kaleidoscope sound, features audio samples of dog barks over a story of miscommunication and missed signals. “Put That Away And Talk To Me”, “Always”, and “I Hope My Life”, ranging from a childlike, autotuned loop to an R&B-infused electro-ballad to a primitive synth-heavy banger, also emphasize the same thing: dreams, feelings, experiences and people are all temporary. Everything is temporary.

But it does this album little justice to simplify the relationships on display into romantic ones. The Colour In Anything is about relationships of all kinds, but it is most especially about relationships with the self. In the title track, James expresses a fear of becoming numb to the world around him: “And how I told you what I’d do / If one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything,” he wonders. The man’s exhausted; as his celebrity grows, his Roald Dahlian ability to find joy in the everyday is waning. With its sparse piano and sharp, isolated vocals, this lullaby of a song clearly inspired the album artwork by Dahl’s original illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake, which captures its spirit by juxtaposing childlike illustration with stormy colors and dark, erotic imagery (note the nude woman in the tree in the top left corner, and the smirk on a shadowy James Blake’s face). The point of The Colour In Anything — both the song and the album itself — is that James has grown up, both personally and musically. TCIA is a documentation of his growing pains.

“Meet Me In The Maze”, the album closer, is as close to a happy ending as James has ever gotten. Even then, he expresses doubt about the last seven years of his life in an slurred acapella autotune: “Music can’t be everything,” he sings into the void. Existentially speaking, he has a point. But when it comes to The Colour In Anything, perhaps one of the most immersive, compelling auditory trips in recent memory, he’s dead wrong. Because, in fact, that’s the only way to describe what it’s like to listen to this album: for these 75+ minutes, for these seventeen songs, James Blake’s music is everything.

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