In modern pop, James Blake is the digital ghost whose presence is everywhere
At least until recently, James Blake lived alone in a chamber of reflection, where he built ballads out of negative space.
Even the most polyphonous symphonies in his 10-year career have rested on near-subsonic vocal loops; within the singer’s minimalist soundscapes, the silences surrounding his digitized falsetto are often as charged as the notes themselves. This isn’t just integral to Blake’s appeal; it’s the essence of it.
Since first emerging from the UK’s post-dubstep scene, the singer has crafted songs like phantom limbs; shivering and shadowy, they exist in a vacuum, and how loud their silences feel speaks more to Blake’s great sorrow than words ever could.
It’s with this ability to imbue sonic empty spaces with deep feeling that Blake — who’ll play a sold-out show at House of Blues on Wednesday — has emerged as one of the decade’s most quietly influential musicians.
“Assume Form,” his latest and most optimistic record, finds Blake slow-dancing with a new love over the mouth of an abyss. It’s replete with his signatures: rich reverb, exquisite strings, a voice that cracks like glass under pressure. But with unexpectedly romantic arrangements subsuming Blake’s vocals this time around, the album continues his commitment to sonic trailblazing.
Of course, others laid the groundwork: Radiohead, the progenitors of digital-ghost sound; Burial, with its pristine dubstep; Bon Iver, hitching pastoral folk to electronica; RZA, with his moody introspection; Kanye West, who mainstreamed Auto-Tune as the preferred key of the lonely and lovelorn.
But since 2013’s “Overgrown,” his Mercury Prize-winning sophomore record, the long arc of popular music has been bending toward Blake, not the other way around. Though 2016’s “The Color in Everything” felt widescreen in terms of its length (76 winding minutes) and willingness to entertain houseguests (producer Rick Rubin; Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon), it was still a portrait composed of washed blues and grays. And even while working with rap and R&B titans such as Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, Blake retained his status as a digital ghost, just haunting the music industry’s most imperious machines for a change.
Both Bey and K-Dot sought him out for the sparse quality of his compositions, which he gamely replicated. On “Forward,” off Beyoncé’s opus “Lemonade,” Blake gave disembodied voice to the singer’s innermost grief, and in doing so offered her catharsis so pure — and so detached from the rest of “Lemonade” — it felt celestial. As a collaborator on Lamar’s “DAMN.” and Grammy-winning “King’s Dead” (off the “Black Panther” soundtrack), Blake supplied the Compton wordsmith with moody tableaus over which to mete out furious rhymes.
Rather than imitating Blake’s sound, restless tinkerers like Travis Scott and Vince Staples have involved him directly. (For a guy who’s turned existential loneliness into a brand, Blake’s certainly not short famous friends.) Even Drake wanted to sample him — on “0 to 100/The Catch Up” — though, true to form, he was more interested in an “I’ll-take-it-sign-here” business transaction than organic collaboration; Blake turned him down.
But major-league infiltrations aside, the singer’s impact on the pop zeitgeist is audible in its increased appreciation for space and silence. Blake’s sound echoes through the narcotized twilight zone where Future unloads bass-driven raps, in the private pocket dimension Ariana Grande escapes to while processing deep pain on “thank u, next.” If Bon Iver and Kanye inspired Blake, he’s since paid them back in full; the singer’s influence hangs over the debut of Big Red Machine (Vernon’s folktronic collab with The National’s Aaron Dessner) and all five albums Kanye produced last year. Synthy R&B crooners who came up around the same time as Blake — like Moses Sumney, owner of another gorgeously frail falsetto, and Frank Ocean, Blake’s only real rival at crafting posthuman mood boards — still owe him a debt for how he’s shifted the pop paradigm in their direction. Ditto for those recasting electro-soul in their own molds, from serpentwithfeet to Sampha, who mirror Blake’s intense emotionality and wraithlike production.
The spectrality of Blake’s sound has been especially surfaced by some working in his shadow. On the doomy “Haunted Water,” Bay Area soulstress SPELLLING envisions the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean as a heaving graveyard, swollen with the memory of slaves who didn’t survive the Middle Passage; she loops melodies as if merging currents to create a whirlpool. Her debut, out Feb. 22, is like Blake’s music in how it sways between the immediate and intangible.
Blake’s new album makes an intriguing proposition: What if this digital ghost could phase change, departing his familiar ether to seek a more recognizable human shape? The concept seems irreconcilable with his ethereal vibe, until “Assume Form” shows it’s not. Blake’s glacial production remains intact; what’s new is a willingness to let others thaw him out. Travis Scott and Metro Boomin bring a carnal heat to “Mile High,” and you can feel them reassuring Blake his falsetto needn’t always feel so heavy. Even his silences feel warmer; on “Lullaby for My Insomniac,” he uses them to sketch the dark spaces above the bed he shares with his lover.
It’s too soon to say what impact Blake’s decision to turn into the light will have on the artists for whom he’s already helped reconceptualize music-making in the digital era. Tellingly, Blake is photographed on the cover of “Assume Form,” hands clasped behind his head, staring directly into the camera; it’s the first time he’s appeared in the art so directly, not obscured by double exposure or vivid watercolor. Whatever’s next, Blake’s ready to face the world he’s ushered in.