As the year comes to end, I am doing what I can to review albums I have been listening to, and feel deserve some attention, but for whatever reason I was unable to cover during sooner to their actual release. This was the case for The Colour in Anything, James Blake’s massive third album that got a surprise week the weekend before my final exams started. This was also the weekend Radiohead and Death Grips had released projects so this one just got lost in the shuffle. Even if I do not listen to him religiously, Blake’s first two records are both great and seeing that this record was 76 minutes long, it was clear he was going to be ambitious.
The first thing worth bringing up here is James Blake and the interesting career he has made for himself. What is more interesting to me is how easily James Blake could probably fit into the mainstream if he made more accessible R&B, like someone like Sam Smith who has a similar soft-spoken and emotive delivery. Blake, on the other hand, has decided to make a name for himself as an electronic artist, and a great one at that. Unlike Bon Iver on their last record, you can tell Blake knows exactly how to handle this complex production and write for it in a way that makes his occasionally repetitive lyrics work to feel almost hypnotic.
Lyrically, this can easily be seen as a breakup album, as many of the songs are a glimpse at a failing relationship, or are focused on Blake’s depression in general, possibly as a result of a breakup. This is set up excellently on the opener “Radio Silence,” depicting the final moments of a relationship Blake is in and his feelings of emptiness once everything has ended. This relationship is looked into somewhat during “Points” as it is repeated countlessly that his old lover is “no longer her,” as she has changed into someone he can no longer be with. The track itself does not work well for me sadly, being one of the few weak songs on this 17 track project, with its repetition being a bit too much for me.
“F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” is one of the best written tracks on here, stripping back to just a piano, adding extra weight to the lyrics about how Blake is afraid to use the word “forever” as the finality of it just seems unrealistic to him. It is instantly followed up with the more personal “Put That Away and Talk to Me” where Blake is coming out of a weed-fueled haze as he tries to find inspiration for his music. His heavy feelings are quite clear on here as he tries to clean up and feel relief from his pain without weed.
Going back to a feeling of hypnosis, the song “I Hope My Life” takes just eight lines and arranges them over the course of nearly six minutes, over an electric bass that sounds inspired by what would appear in the 1980s. The song sees Blake’s desire for a better relationship to find himself in. This feeling is carried onto “Waves Know Shores” where Blake’s partner wants to know him in the way the waves know the shore, in an intimate and natural way. The metaphor is a little Hallmark-y but Blake is smart with it and it comes across smarter than it could have.
While Blake tackles most of the writing duties here, two of the tracks here were also co-written by Frank Ocean, whom Blake went on to collaborate with later on his latest releases. The first of these collaborations, “My Willing Heart,” sounds like something that I could have seen Ocean working into his Blonde. The track sees Blake questioning his heart, which is actively searching for love, trying to see if what he feels is truly love or just lust. The heavy percussion in the background works excellently, and while some vocals from Ocean would have made it perfect, it still comes together well. As does “Always” where Blake imagines himself living in a sweet world where things are easier and he can be fearless. Blake is able to make it his own with some looped vocals that add to the odd, dream-like state of this album in general.
The core of this album is where the two most noteworthy songs on the entire record reside. The first, “I Need a Forest Fire” is Blake’s collaboration with Bon Iver and is greater than anything on 22, A Million. The song is about rebirth, using the forest fire as a metaphor to burn down all the negative things in your life and restart with something better. The duet is handled excellently, with Justin Vernon’s emotive delivery swelling up on the chorus as Blake joins him and the two of them give some of the most powerful deliveries on the entire record. Every second of this song is well-constructed and eloquently written.
The same goes for the title track which appears shortly after. The quiet piano ballad, is a brutally realistic view of depression and the pain that Blake would feel if he woke up one day and saw there was no joy in his life. He implies this joy is the only thing that keeps him going and he might not even be alive if that joy faded away. The quaint multitracking here is effective helps hold your attention for every note.
Finally, the closing track, which was also co-written by Justin Vernon, is a quiet, somber ending to a quiet and somber album. The title “I’ll Meet You in the Maze” is a call for whoever Blake is meant to be with to come and meet him, despite all the obstacles. The production is gone and all is left is Blake with a vocoder to silently sing these closing words. His desire to find something else is heard on the last lyric “music can’t be everything” implying he will need more in order to feel happy in life.
This album is so close to being something truly exceptional. Its biggest flaw is it’s duration which, despite not ever boring me, is a lot of the same and will drain most listeners. A condensed version of this would have made it so much stronger, but even with that, too much of a good thing does not ruin an album. I still think Blake is incredibly talented and this is just further proof that he deserves all the acclaim he can get. He has mastered subtlety in a genre where subtlety is hard to find and that is wonderful. For most people, this album will be better enjoyed in bits and pieces but for those who know Blake and love him, you probably already have been listening to this for six months and loving it.
Best Tracks: Radio Silence, F.O.R.E.V.E.R., Put That Away and Talk to Me, Waves Know Shores, I Need a Forest Fire, The Colour in Anything, Always, Meet You in the Maze
Worst Track: Points