In the two years between the release of his eponymous debut album and Overgrown, James Blake received some sage advice from his father, the guitarist James Litherland: don’t borrow so much, you want the big moments at your shows to be your moments. True, the highlights of 2011’s James Blake were a cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream”, a track which appropriates heavily from Litherland’s own “Where to Turn”. Yet Blake’s iterations were uniquely his, characterized by stop-and-start piano, squalls of synthesizer recalling his early dubstep work, and above all, his prominent and marvelous vocals.
Blake has taken his father’s words to heart though, producing a sophomore effort comprised entirely of originals. The result is a more cohesive and developed full-length than its predecessor, with the brightest moments belonging solely to Blake. Influenced by an encounter with Joni Mitchell, the title track opens the album with a deeply personal reflection on permanence, with the singer lamenting “Time passes in the constant state”. First single “Retrograde”, possibly his strongest track to date, blends Blake’s signature minimalism with a warm soulful hook, a surefire crowd-pleaser Dad would be proud of. Overgrown also features production work from Brian Eno and a surprising guest spot from the RZA, who recently joined Blake onstage at Coachella to perform “Take a Fall for Me”.
Fans who prefer the British producer’s electronica work over the sparser singer-songwriter material will find much to adore here as well. Dance beats and snappy drum samples feature throughout on songs like “Life Round Here” and standout “Voyeur”, an abridged version of a track released on Blake’s own club-friendly 1-800-Dinosaur label. Blake’s genius here lies in his ability to effortlessly blend his gorgeous soul compositions with his electronic freak-out proclivities, his pop side with his experimental side. The result of his matrimony of genres is a fine sophomore effort and one of the year’s best so far.