James Blake | photo by Isaiah Spicer for WXPN | iospicer.com
James Blake resists definition on the intimate and club-ready Before
Following up the official release of his “Godspeed” cover (originally performed by Frank Ocean) in September, James Blake has returned to release a new EP, Before. It shares almost no similarities to “Godspeed,” other than the melancholy tone, which has permeated most of his releases (with the notable exception of last year’s collaboration-filled Assume Form). Before differs from Blake’s prior work, however, musically: this project is almost entirely driven by dance beats, compared to the eclectic electronica of past releases.
Signature James Blake-isms are still present, of course: vocals that switch between a pillowy falsetto and buttery baritone, eclectic samples, and non-traditional song structures. However, each of the four tracks on Before is driven by pulsing drums that lie just underneath the foggy mix, as if your local club’s speaker system got dunked underwater. Before is a stunning example of pandemic-era club music done right: you’ll miss the dance floor and your ex equally.
Every second of every track is perfectly crafted to combine experimental electronica, best suited for at-home listening, with sparse house music. The EP’s third track, “Do You Ever,” opens with discordant synth lines, before multiple James Blakes ask “Do you ever think about me? / really, if you’re honest with me?” The interplay between the rhythm of the hook and the synth groove is really interesting, creating a semi-call-and-response feel. Title track “Before” builds up, slowly, in the form of a standard beat drop, but then pulls the curtain out from under you, instead opening up to overlapping, ascending lines of low-pitched strings and electronic beeps.
While some might have seen Blake’s last full-length album, Assume Form, as a bit of a fumble for the talented singer/songwriter/producer, Before is a surefire return to form. Blake’s signature approach to combining singer/songwriter music with electronica works exceedingly well in this context, resulting in one of the most intimate and honest house releases of the year.
Listen to James Blake’s Before here.