San Francisco – I’ve always wanted someone to throw me a surprise party. It just never happens though. I tend to blame sitcoms for this yearning; they just make it look like so much fun, and there are always seemingly endless antics to be had on such an occasion. That, and the notion that all your friends are gathered in one place at one time, just to see the bejeesus scared out of you before a night of mirth and merriment seems so appealing to me. Alas, it has never happened for me, and so I’m left planning my own celebrations, the same old boring barhops year after year in mid-August to celebrate the beginning of my next year of life on Earth.
It seems that perhaps some musicians share the same inkling as me, as they have apparently tired of the standard album announcement and far-off release date, opting instead to surprise their fans with an unmitigated release of their latest albums. Radiohead was the first to do such a thing, back in 2007 with their self-released LP In Rainbows, and followed suit with 2011’s The King of Limbs. Beyoncé is also now famous for it, and Drake pulled a similar stunt with his most recent collection VIEWS. Now, sandwiched between the equally unpredictable releases of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Radiohead’s ninth studio LP, UK producer/singer/wunderkind James Blake has shocked the world with the unexpected release of his third full-length, The Colour in Anything.
Blake’s third LP comes after months of speculation, dating back to more than a year ago when new material started popping up during his BBC Radio 1 sets. Back then, the working title of the album was Radio Silence, and was purported to boast collaborations with Kanye West and Justin Vernon. The shift in title came only just recently, when Blake cryptically posted Instagram photos of a mural in London, partnered with the caption “The Colour in Anything.” This past Thursday, Blake revealed that the album would be released at the stroke of midnight, and now, here it is, among us at last.
The Colour in Anything follows up Blake’s 2013 Mercury Prize-winning sophomore LP Overgrown, which boasted collaborations with electronic music legend Brian Eno and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. His eponymous 2011 debut LP was lauded by critics as visionary and unique, though in the time before the release of his debut — and in between LPs — Blake released a slew of EPs; some solely instrumental, others showcasing his delicate, piercing vocals, floating over a prairie of minimalist electronic beats. His third LP is the most ambitious of the bunch, as it spans seventeen tracks and just over seventy-five minutes, teetering on the brink of double-album classification. The promised Bon Iver collaboration is present (though no sign of Kanye West), and heartbreaking R&B genius and former Odd Future member Frank Ocean is credited as a co-writer on the album — and his influence is palpable. Just last month, Blake teased that the album was finally complete, but would span eighteen tracks (instead of the seventeen it currently does), and would include one song that clocked in at around twenty minutes in length… which means the lengthiest number was ultimately cut from the final release.
Fans who have followed the one-off tracks that have emerged from The Colour in Anything are probably familiar with a few tracks off the LP, including “Modern Soul,” “Timeless,” and “Radio Silence,” which was supposedly going to be the title track, but now instead simply serves as the album’s opener. It’s a painful, repetitive song, echoing Blake’s innate ability to demonstrate the veritable lunacy that overwhelms someone left in the dark, constantly questioning. The song evolves from a pensive, piano-driven number into a song that is barraged with shrill synthesized tones, perfectly capturing the plethora of negative voices, both inside and out, that plague those who have been forsaken.
Much of the album is signature James Blake: looping, ethereal, often distorted vocals; minimal dubstep/hip-hop influenced beats and startling crescendo permeate the LP’s many tracks, especially evident in songs like “Points,” “Timeless,” “Noise Above Our Heads,” and penultimate track “Always.” Many of the songs toy with a more boisterous brand of electronica, offering penetrating and sometimes shrill tones (“I Hope My Life”), soothing ambient noise (“Waves Know Shores”), poppy and dexterous backgrounds (“Two Men Down”), and a few instances of cleverly employed auto-tune (“My Willing Heart”). Mixing auto-tune with a voice that is so clearly established and near-perfect on a technical level produces some very interesting results; it’s almost as if the program doesn’t know what to do with itself and overcompensates, morphing the outcome into a blissful, warped warble. Only one other musician with fantastic pipes who used this unconventional method comes to mind: Sufjan Stevens, who experimented with auto-tune on his bizarre and astounding LP The Age of Adz (for those who are unfamiliar, give that album’s final track, the twenty-five- minute-long “Impossible Soul” a listen, and you’ll see what I mean).
Blake’s voice is easily the MVP on this album, as it is on his other collections, which makes his more space-friendly brand of instrumentation work so perfectly. Throughout his career, Blake has harnessed the power of his vocals to fill in the voids left in between the frequent “sparseness” of his arrangements, yet many of these seemingly minimal orchestrations erupt unexpectedly into rich, magma-like bursts of magnitude and depth, often at his songs’ climaxes where his voice is heard wailing, soaring to the highest peaks of his range. And then, suddenly, it all dies back down again, and we are brought back to Earth to navigate the valleys of his sonic terrain once more, like wandering through a desert on a starry night. Vocally, the richest song on The Colour in Anything is the tenth track, “Choose Me,” which starts out with a chorale of Blake’s layered vocals that ebb and flow in volume, pitch, and intensity, with the main vocal track flying headfirst into the howling gales of braided Blake vocals that are both organic and distorted in nature (this is another track where he toys with auto-tune). The collaboration with Bon Iver, “I Need A Forest Fire,” yields the floor to the uncharacteristically digitized vocals of Justin Vernon, while Blake’s voice sort of lingers in the background, like a whisper behind a curtain. However, his voice comes back in full force on the quieter, piano driven tracks “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” and title track “The Colour in Anything,” both of which bring to mind his flawless cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” from his Enough Thunder EP. The final track “Meet You In The Maze” is completely a capella, but only in the effect that there are no instruments being played; his vocals are drastically altered to sound almost robotic, like a ghost of an opera singer trapped in a machine (reminiscent of early Imogen Heap).
Some people don’t like surprises. In my experience, these are the people who like to plan everything out to a T and leave little to no room for flexibility. These are the people that would flip a proverbial shit if you threw them a surprise party, and that’s totally valid. Some people just don’t operate that way. But I can’t think of anyone in the world that would be put off by a surprise album release, unless they were a record executive and a contract was breached or something. Generally, I think it’s safe to say that we all love music, and when someone says, “Hey, here’s my new album,” completely out-of- the-blue, we all basically have the same response: “GIMME!” James Blake’s third LP is not only a pleasant surprise; it’s one hell of an album. After months and months of speculation and teasing, it’s here at last, and though it is quite daunting in terms of its length, the content is so pristinely executed and gorgeous that any qualms are swiftly washed away by the warm tides of Blake’s heavenly voice and frothy instrumentation. Not only was it a joy to discover The Colour in Anything‘s imminent release, it continues to be a joy to experience over and over again.