**1/2 (out of four)
In his self-titled 2011 debut album, James Blake was already beginning to pivot away from the purely electronic production that first got him noticed. A show-stopping cover of Joni Mitchell's “A Case Of You” and a collaboration with fellow sentimentalist Bon Iver released later in 2011 made it clearest where he was headed. These days, Blake's production is crisper, more exciting and more widely celebrated than ever – Kanye and Drake are both fans – but his approach on his sophomore effort, “Overgrown,” is as much that of a singer-songwriter as of a producer.
Blake's voice, a stricken, agile falsetto, is everywhere on “Overgrown,” although not always in what would count as songs in the strictest sense. Even alongside titanic bass lines and spare piano notes, it's his most powerful instrument, but it's also mostly used as little more than that. His repetitive one-line phrases drop into songs as if they were samples, and, rather than adding embellishment, they tend to pull the songs apart, creating jarring tensions and offering fruitless hope that a melody could surface. This is especially true on the formless “Life Round Here” and “To the Last,” on which his voice becomes almost grating.
That effect could be seen as an expression of the taut, fragile breakup emotions Blake explores, but it seems unfair to settle for grating when songs like the RZA-imitating (and -featuring) “Take a Fall for Me” and lead single “Retrograde” make the same point while sounding incredible. Devastating piano ballad “DLM,” with its central lyric of “please don't let me hurt you more,” shows that Blake can write songs as deep and affecting as the washes of sound and meticulous drum patterns that rise up out of his production.
This album won't do much to change the impressions of anyone who thinks of Blake's native England as a perpetually gloomy, foggy place–even the RZA feeds the stereotype with lyrical references to drinking stouts–but its downcast, abstract approach, like that London fog, contains its own poetry and depth.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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