There is no congregation at the church of the lovelorn: only a few scattered bodies that pray with the lover, who is lost. On James Blake’s third album The Colour in Anything, we find an artist searching for meaning about the self, within and post relationship. Here, Blake gets help from Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean, and Rick Rubin to create the sonic environments. The songs give us a man retracing how at a cellular level his body attempts to detach itself from the other human that had brought him so much joy. While there is definitely a more unplugged humanness to the songs on Colour, what still becomes clear, is that James, more so than many of his contemporaries, is able to evoke the feelings that define what it is like to be vulnerable and intimate in a technocratic world; the soul trapped in the cybernetic system. Blake has always been so good at elucidating this reality through sound. The Colour in Anything is warm yet distant. It feels like getting away in a dense forest only to check your ex’s instagram feed.
On “Choose Me” Blake is pleading to his lover that he rather spend time with her than work on his music, even though he knows she feels otherwise. He covers this sentiment in a unique arrangement. What begins as a sort of gothic dancehall, then gets erased into a composition of finicky hi-hats and decomposed lin drums, where his looped wail cry and an assortment of synth sounds give a morose weight to the lyrics. Later on “Two Men Down”, co-produced by Rick Ruben and Justin Vernon, Blake finds himself having to compete with another man for his lover’s affection. The song sounds like a train on fumes ambling through a city, except the train is CGI and a shit bandwidth is pixelating the image to green-red-pink squares hell. Add the thick blunted bassline and the song’s internal conflict almost sounds serene.
Other songs like “Timeless” and “Modern Soul” are classic Blake filled with scratchy white noise, an array of synthetic vocal samples, and heavy, yet minimal low ends. The former was even supposed to feature a verse from Ye, but fell through due to scheduling conflicts. Arguably though, the album’s most climactic moment comes on “I Need A Forest Fire” featuring Bon Iver. A rumbling bass line and sparse snare tick, move under a stretched keynote, and repeated vocal sample saying “another shade / another shadow”. With these simple elements, James and Justin begin to belt out metaphorical lyrics about needing something as strong as a forest fire to bring new life into their exhausted feelings. It’s as pretty as heartache can sound.
The album’s two most stunning moments though are the opener “Radio Silence” and “Noise Above Our Heads”. On the latter, Blake inverts the sound and feeling of Overgrown single “Retrograde,” which was all Marvin Gaye in a bottle: ecstatic and rapturist. In “Noise Above Our Heads” though, Blake is now numb, staring out windows in the deep of night. Bleeps and blops bounce over a rigid cold organ, as the drums and bass cut a melancholy thump through the ears of the listener. Blake sings “‘Til I wish you well / ‘Til I am not the enemy / I’ll find no peace… Knowing you did right… Noise above our heads, even in the night”. It’s a replicated narcotic sadness that is so human, shadows of lost lovers will inevitably form in the mind. Then there is “Radio Silence”. What. The. Fuck. Is. This? Some elf deep in a crystaline cave repeating “I can’t believe this you don’t wanna see me” over a piano, only to be changed into theme music for an alien abduction. The way the synth and high-pitched loop crash into the melody you’d feel this song ain’t about depression, but metalloid metamorphosis. It’s a powerful opener and the album almost never returns to this apex.
To close, the odd truth is The Colour in Anything is James Blake’s weakest album. Even though he claimed in a recent interview that “when it comes to making music it wasn’t important whether I was happy or sad—it’s about sensitivity and your reaction to the world. I wouldn’t want to be one of those artists that keeps themselves in a perpetual cycle of anxiety and depression just to extract music from that,” he was def in his feels making this album. It’s his wordiest record (his verbal minimalism on past projects was a plus) and just too long; clocking in at over an hour. While the piano ballads like “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” and “Waves Know Shores” are competent, they are also forgettable. Other songs like “Love Me In Whatever Way” and “The Colour In Anything” sound incomplete or flat in comparison to the other tunes. Yet, it’s Blake’s ability to take a pop sensibility for melody, and infuse into the darker regions of EDM, dub, and R&B that make his music a powerful contemporary force. Few artist will reach the highs of Colour in 2016. Now go blast the gems at ten, and get all in your sad boy wave.