The question, if you are James Blake, was always What are you going to do next? When you release an album as powerful, as genre-shifting, as era-defining as his eponymous debut was, the weight of public pressure, as hungry eyes and ears wait feverishly to see what the next trick out of the bag will look and sound like, must be immense. Brother J has written before on the curse of the stunning debut and the great expectations that come with it but I’m not sure that many artists have the same sort of Dickensian burden to struggle with as does James Blake. It might be a bit of subjective opinion, a gap in historical musical knowledge, but Blake stands out at the forefront of post-dubstep, the genre that took hold in South East London and steadily increased its grip on the rest of the world. For better or worse, Blake is irrevocably associated with that movement and that time. Now he has to think about what he’s going to do with that legacy to keep himself from becoming more than an historical sidebar. Reinventing music a second time round is no small task.
‘Retrograde’, the first we’ve heard out of Blake since he announced yesterday that his follow-up ‘Overgrown’ will be out April 8, is an interesting response to this anticipation in a couple of ways. The announcement yesterday, February 7, came exactly two years to the day since the UK release of ‘James Blake’. In that way, taking the sentimentality of the date choice to mean something, Blake might be attempting to hold on to some of the good will that album, a late bloomer outside of Britain, garnered him. As a track title, however, ‘Retrograde’ hints at an inversion of the normal, an adjustment to the expected progression of things. Read together, the album announcement and track title might suggest that Blake is approaching the precipice of something new without wanting to totally abandon the musicality that made his debut such a stunning album. Indeed, while demanding more time to fully distill and appreciate, ‘Retrograde’ strikes me as more soulful and less frequently electronically jarring than his earlier work. There is a warmth to ‘Retrograde’ which was sometimes missing from the often disaffected interior of ‘James Blake’.
As much as Blake and ‘Overgrown’ will inevitably be judged against the character and quality of his debut, it is important to take a context-free view of ‘Retrograde’ too. Heard from this perspective, with the fog of comparison lifted, ‘Retrograde’ is compelling evidence that James Blake is an invaluable life force in contemporary music. At 24, as he addresses an anonymous female, Blake sounds wise beyond his years. The hummed melody that, twisted and reverberated, nudged along by a languid beat, serves as the foundations for the track also speaks to this maturity as the sprawling voids and white noise that characterised his debut are replaced by Blake’s own crooning – a little more exposed, a little more vulnerable. A haunting mix of Blake’s vocals and uneasy, droning synths pervades the track so that, as he likely planned it, we’re never quite comfortable listening to his pep talk to this unknown girl. ‘Unsettling’ was always a feature of James Blake’s musicality but now there is something more emotionally turbulent about it all. Premature evaluations are unnecessary and unhelpful. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to propose to predict Blake’s future on the strength of this song alone. But yes, this is a strong song.
James Blake – Retrograde