On “Modern Soul,” the 15th track of James Blake’s wonderful new album, the electro-pop producer and multi-instrumentalist weaves a plucky piano melody, echo-drenched electronic beat, and chilly atmospherics into an almost six-minute groove that glides as slowly as an arctic floe. The melancholy vibe perfectly captures Blake’s headspace. He’s feeling caught in that all-too-familiar purgatory of a deteriorating relationship and not quite sure what to do about it. “I want it to be over,” he croons, his unmistakable voice dive-bombing from falsetto to baritone and back again. “When I don’t think of you, the willpower.”
If this is what modern soul music sounds like in 2016, consider James Blake the genre’s sharpest visionary. Since breaking out with EPs like 2010’s dub-step-influenced Klavierwerke, the 27-year-old Brit has pushed pop balladry into exciting new directions. He’s also been a key muse for the frosty, down-tempo sound that’s influenced so much of the current Top 40, from Selena Gomez’ Revival to Zayn Malik’s Mind of Mine. And with The Colour in Anything, he’s delivered one of the best examples of that style yet.
Blake was catapulted into indie’s relentless hype cycle at just 21 years old and he’s managed to avoid that machine’s churn-and-burn. A major-label deal has helped; so too has having his music (2013’s “Retrograde”) featured in the trailer for HBO’s The Leftovers. But Blake has said in interviews recently that he was frustrated with the sessions for this album. So he called upon some pros like deified producer Rick Rubin and Blake’s pal Frank Ocean to help. Sometimes, the assistance is clutch: Rubin’s tracks are some of the album’s best and on “My Willing Heart,” co-written with Ocean, Blake takes a waltz rhythm and slows it down to a near standstill. At other points, like on the Justin Vernon-backed track “I Need a Forest Fire,” the collaborative spirit overwhelms the stark, introspective mood Blake’s attempting to create.
At 17 songs in 76 minutes, Colour is Blake’s longest album yet and with so much talent aiding the songwriter, it can feel belabored. But then there are stunners like “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” and the title track, which are built around just Blake’s keys and that keening croon. On the latter, you can even hear the creaking of his piano pedals. Moments like these are so sublime and so intimate, they’ll send a shiver down your spine.