Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is James Blake's The Colour In Anything.
In 2011, I saw James Blake play what was one of his first shows on U.S. soil as part of Pitchfork’s SXSW showcase at Central Presbyterian Church. At that point, his self-titled debut had been out for six weeks, and a veritable tsunami of hype was threatening to crash over the 22-year-old singer and take him out to sea.
Blake took the stage in a shitty hooded sweatshirt to a church that was so quiet a pin drop would have shattered eardrums. He played his first song, and when he got through it perfectly, he gave out a relieved exhale—the same kind you’d do when you narrowly avoid a car crash-- into the microphone and cracked a smile. In that moment, the reality of the situation crashed in; this was a 22-year-old who had made music in his bedroom over a laptop that was consumed mostly by other 22-year-olds over their own laptops. Performing live at a church at SXSW probably wasn’t what Blake expected, and he knew from spending his time on the internet what a bad performance would do to him. He was nervous, and it showed. But he showed up IRL and delivered what today is still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.That separation between James Blake, the lonely guy recording music in his bedroom, and James Blake the musical superstar, has been the central tension of his music since. The follow up to his bedroom debut was Overgrown, an album that saw him awkwardly poking his head out of the bedroom to the possibility that he might be a big star, before ultimately retreating (“I don’t want to be a star, but a stone on a shore,” he sings on the title track). The Colour in Anything, his awaited third LP—dropped with a single announcement Thursday night before hitting Spotify Friday morning—is the biggest power-move of Blake’s career. He’s stronger on production—this sounds like what the bathtub in the video for “When Doves Cry” feels like—and lyrically this is the most open and universal he’s been. Recorded in the wake of his breakup with a member of Warpaint, here he’s wounded; he’s no longer the guy who had to rely on Feist covers to be the emotional centerpieces of his albums. He’s got heartbreak of his own to chronicle.
The Colour opens with “Radio Silence,” a buzzing, piano-led track that has a repeated refrain of, “I can’t believe that you don’t want to see me,” with Blake working it into a mantra; his pleas become the base he builds the song on. Things go sideways and more emotionally raw from there. He asks for more attention (“Put That Away and Talk to Me”) and he asks for a more meaningful connection (“Waves Know Shores”). He ponders the feasibility of a life long relationship when people change (“f.o.r.e.v.e.r.”) and wanting his partner to fight for a relationship with him and not the other way around (“Choose Me”). On the title track, he breaks out the piano and the barest registers of his voice of a song trying to recapture fading love, and multiplies his voice into a cacophony for the “am I the other man?” anthem “Two Men Down.” It’s a shame this is coming out in summer; this is the perfect post-cuffing season breakup album.
The Colour ultimately cements Blake’s status as Sam Smith for people who only drink craft beer and subscribe to a bike sharing program in their gentrified American city. I don’t mean this as a negative—Smith is a rare case of someone cleaning up at the Grammys who actually deserves it; he’s the best male pop singer out right now—it’s that Blake’s music slots into the lives of people who hate Miller Lite the same way Smith’s music does for their counterparts (let’s keep it 100: “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” here is a Smith song). He soundtracks breakups, loneliness, and the moment where you say fuck it and go out and party despite feeling emotionally unprepared to deal with humanity.
The Colour in Anything feels like Blake taking a step up; he’s never been better than this album, and that’s an accomplishment since his first two are 2010s classics. Five years ago he was a nervous kid stepping out into the wider world with an album so soft a firm pinch could vanquish it. Now he’s capable of an album as strong as The Colour in Anything; he’s done being the bedroom auteur. We've known he's one of our best for five years; it feels like he knows it now too.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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