AHEAD OF WEDNESDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT OF 2013’S MERCURY PRIZE WINNER, AOT WRITERS HAVE BEEN SINKING THEIR TEETH INTO THE NOMINEES, DISCERNING BETWEEN MOUTHGASM MARVELLOUSNESS AND INDIGESTION-INDUCING MUSICAL BUGGERY.
Where would James Blake be without his voice? I’d posit that he wouldn’t be making uncomfortable, scratchy, alter-club bass music; he would probably be making brash chart electronica and writing beats with David Guetta. This may be unfair, but my point is that Overgrown is an album that is all about presence; all the invoking of an absent other feels, to me, like the assertion of a voice rather than a genuine longing. That is to say, what James really wants is not the absent other, but a means of making prominent his own presence.
It just so happens that the best way to enact this insistent presence is to mourn an absence. Every time Blake yearns for an other he enhances his own sense of presence. This is perhaps most notable in the prominence of his vocals. Even when RZA is around JB can’t help but maintain a proto-spectral warble in the background.
This isn’t to say that this assertive uncertainty can’t breed success. Retrograde is his finest work in a long time: matching The Wilhelm Scream’s balance of drone with a distinctive pop drive. The lyrical moves on the album are often defined by repetition – lord knows I love repetition – and this is perhaps Blake’s most evocative move on the album. We should understand these repetitions as an ideal representation of Blake’s melancholic situation. Each repetitious assertion is a hope for something different: thus each return of a phrase serves to remind us – and him – that what was potentially possible was not realized.
This perhaps highlights the biggest problem with the album itself: it’s a very fruitful process to sit and throw theory at the album. That is not necessarily a bad thing – there is no problem in taking music seriously. The problem is that Blake spends a long time asserting himself vocally, building beats that are always driving towards gratification and asserting himself vocally, such a long time in fact that the album ends up feeling as if it’s come from the act of self-assertion, not the act of self-understanding/exploration/whatever other phraseology we want to use. Point being, this is an album about projecting from the self, not examining what it is to be someone imbued with such apparent melancholy.
I’m not encouraging Blake to embrace depressive situations and do nothing; to examine is not the same as to be static, quite the opposite. Rather, because the album expends so much energy emphasizing a presence, in the end there isn’t much actually quantity to that presence. It’s just a voice, repeating itself, occasionally gratified by some climactic beats.
All of this said, a Mercury nomination for an album that is so openly trying to be melancholic is interesting in itself. The performative excesses of much pop music – work hard play hard – is thoroughly in thrall to the logic of n/lib capital and decidedly lacking in a recognition of the psychological left overs of an ideology that asserts this work hard play hard position.
So if JB snaps up the prize then we can say that at least he’s thematically flailing towards something interesting, and I suppose his warbles are preferable to him asserting himself with hollow beats, a mullet, a cheap leather jacket and a sex pest’s grin.