I understand the criticisms against “Take A Fall For Me,” but if you take Overgrown to be a showcase of all the things that James Blake introduced over the length of his already-prolific resume—talking about two full-lengths, four full EP’s, and a handful of non-album singles—not to mention the fact that he’s only 23 years old—then it makes sense. It’s essentially the James Blake-produced “Confidence Boost” with the higher-profile guest feature RZA replacing Trim and with the more meaningful “You can’t marry him” hook replacing “Strike a pose!” I will admit that “tight as the grip of a squid” is a simile that RZA should never have written on paper and Blake should never have given the green light to, a terrible case of rhyming for rhyming’s sake, not to mention the fact that knowing RZA, it is probably a reference to handjob. Otherwise, the repetition of several mantras, “Sex shapes the body, truth shapes the mind” and “I need you like I need satisfaction,” and that wonderful vocal sample that comes in halfway through, compensate enough for its shortcomings.
Now, one of James Blake’s weaknesses—evident by the fact that his most popular song and also one of his best ballads are both covers (“Limit to Your Love” and “A Case of You” respectively)—is that he’s not much of a melodist. This is fine, of course, because again, he is aware of it and is able to fully compensate for his shortcomings. Recall “I Never Learnt to Share;” once he had gotten the melody he wanted, he simply repeated it and worked around it. This probably makes lead single “Retrograde” the best track on the album. It’s the only one where he’s showing us something new (in a sense, anyway; others have done it before him), introducing the track with a wordless melodic motif that’s carried through. Then, one-by-one, James Blake throws everything at his disposal—piano, bass, drums, layered vocals—on top of it. The cold, disconnected and jarring way he sung “Darling” from “A Case of You” is back, but here, it fits the context of the song and is one of the finest moments in it, “We’re alone now” (the 1:22 mark). The real moment to watch out for, is when he sings “Suddenly I’m hit” while rising buzzy synths crash around him (the 1:36 mark) like meteors.
The finest moments on Overgrown are on the second half. That isn’t to say that the first half is particularly bad; it’s not. “Overgrown” mostly fails to impress as it’s the longest track on the album and opener. True, it rides on a steady rhythm, and the lines “I don’t want to be a star/ But a stone on the shore” are the most touching on the album (though it comes second place to the entirety of “The Wilhelm Scream” in the grand scheme of things), but it simply does not possess the thunder of “Unluck.” Meanwhile “Life Around Here” sports both a noticeable riff and a strong chorus, “Everything feels like a touchdown on a rainy day.” Sandwiched between the two is the duet between a high-pitched Antony Hegarty and a normal pitched Antony Hegarty of “I Am Sold,” which is fine, if you’re into indiscernible vocals.
Elsewhere, the shortest track of the album, “DLM” is essentially a more-fleshed out “Why Don’t You Call Me,” especially how the bass piano and his vocals cut out every time you think they’ll be held. Elsewhere, it has a structural resemblance to his cover of “A Case of You” but with a more fleshed out, dramatic ending. The second highlight of the album comes after with “Digital Lion,” a collaboration with Brian Eno, and a wonderful marriage between the two’s distinctive sounds. There’s the melodic ambient backdrop, presumably Eno’s touch, and the long pause filled only by a rhythm after its intro before the relentless groove materializes, a trick we heard first on “Limit To Your Love,” but this time, with Blake’s wordless vocal samples on top of it. Listen closely to the guitar strum that barely materializes underneath it all (ie; at the 2:30 or 2:32 mark) before the track explodes for a second time.
“Voyeur,” which follows, relies on the same tricks for a completely different sound. The first shift is natural, coming in at the 1:09 mark, where tinny drums and cascading pianos come in to join Blake’s single, repeated “And her mind was on me” mantra before the song further fleshes itself out with high pitched synths. Then, everything gets stripped away except for Blake’s voice, which eventually dissipates too for a brief moment of silence before the thing completely changes, the most inherently danceable track Blake has given us since “CMYK.” James Blake’s vocals on “To the Last” take his constantly-strained vocals and pushes them to their limit, a chorus of a one-man gospel that simply soars. But there’s that dark beat punctuating each measure, giving it another dimension, the same way those wails did “Take a Fall For Me” or the bounces of “Our Love Comes Back” prevent it from being just a typical ballad closer.