James Blake has never been a straightforward producer like his electronic contemporaries. Unlike say, SBTRKT, Blake falls heavily into the singer songwriter category, closer in many respects to acts such as Grizzly Bear or Bon Iver due to his minimal emotive style. The young Briton first gained attention back in 2010 with a series of EP releases, among them The Bells Sketch, CMYK and Klavierwerke, and while these were exciting, mostly instrumental efforts that marked the arrival of a young talent amongst a sea of similarly minded electro musicians, it was James Blake (2011) that set the Londoner far beyond the rest. The key difference here was Blake's distinctive, heartfelt vocal that dominated each track and breathed new life into his promising dub beats.
Two years later, Overgrown has arrived amidst much expectation following one of the most highly acclaimed debuts in recent years. It was difficult to tell which direction Blake would head in this time around - a more accessible, commercially viable record, or one that fell deeper into the quiet contemplation of his first. Thankfully for us, Blake has retained his signature reserved approach and Overgrown is an album that follows much the same path as its predecessor to great success.
The title track opens with a laid back, soothing number that washes over the listener while calmly welcoming them in before ''I Am Sold'' begins a slow build, threatening to explode at any moment but ultimately teasing a climax that never comes. Instead it arrives on ''Life Round Here'', with a menacing synth that creeps up behind the track before confronting the beat accompanied by Blake's calm vocal in one of the albums finest moments.
Next is the major talking point of the album, namely the collaboration between Wu Tang Clan legend RZA and Blake on ''Take A Fall For Me'', which was the subject of much discussion prior to Overgrown's release. Upon hearing that the man behind such classic productions as Liquid Swords and Enter The 36 Chambers was to feature, fans were understandably excited to see what the two could create together, however the result is slightly underwhelming due to the fact that the Wu legend sits out on the production side of things, instead featuring to provide a simple rap. Surprisingly RZA's flow is perfectly suited to Blake's music, and it's an unexpected but well executed collaboration, but one you wouldn't imagine going further than a single track.
Another iconic guest comes in the form of Brian Eno, who shows up on ''Digital Lion'', probably the most intriguing track of the ten and it's no small wonder why with the innovative producer is involved. Blake flirts with trippy experimental arrangements on this and ''Voyeur'', which both serve to expand the Englishman's repertoire and hint at a curious new direction. There is plenty of typical Blake here too though, with ''Dim'' acting as the straightforward piano ballad that always sounds so uniquely gorgeous coming from him (''A Case Of You'', ''Enough Thunder'' among the many examples).
As the album closes out with ''Our Love Comes Back'', Blake croons his way to the end on top of a soft electronic backing that makes for a perfect closer, leaving you to reflect on what you've heard through its lullaby ending. While it's difficult to measure Blake against others because often he defies comparison, it's striking at times on Overgrown how he recalls Thom Yorke's The Eraser and Radiohead's later era - high praise indeed for an artist only two full length releases into their career.
Overall, while there may have been a great deal of talk from critics and fans alike regarding the sound and direction of Overgrown, you get the feeling that the artist himself didn't have to think about it too much. This album feels like a natural growth at an extremely steady pace and Blake deserves major credit for quietly expanding his sound without taking any giant leaps.
When I first listened to Overgrown a quote came to my mind from another Wu legend, GZA. He was talking about the recording process him and RZA carried out for Liquid Swords, arguably the finest of the groups solo releases, and how they were simply ''on a roll, and it was the perfect time to get in the studio and just do it". The same seems to apply at the moment to Blake with Overgrown marking the latest in a string of consistent first-rate releases, and long may it last.
Review by Andrew Lambert