2016 is on a fast track for the most GOAT-worthy 365(ish) days of music this decade, from immortal icons passing on to musical Valhalla, to an inordinate number of “surprise” releases. First there was Rihanna, then Yeezy’s TLOP shenanigans, Beyonce putting Jay-Z on blast in cinemascope, and Drizzy Drake releasing an un-essentially long collection of Toronto woe-odes last week. Needless to say, there is a glaring trend amongst the artists who elected to forgo the mundane predictability that typically coincides with name brand artists – with many of them even going as far as debuting on the god-forsaken lost cause that is TIDAL – and it appears the taste for purposeful inconsistency has grown more pervasive outside of hip-hop and pop now as well.
James Blake, one quarter of the 2010’s indie Mt. Rushmore – Justin Vernon, Ezra Koenig, and Win Butler being the other of the four stone heads – released The Colour in Anything this past Friday, unannounced, but not totally unexpected – two singles were released leading up to the album’s release, creating a sort of pseudo promotional calendar.
The Colour in Anything, has been long overdue in the minds of critics and Blake fans alike. Blake had canceled extensive tours in order to capitalize upon creative whims and fancies, which in turn developed a capricious grapevine of rumors and hearsay regarding whether Blake was merely taking extended measures to forge LP3. In 2014, Blake originally announced that this new release would be titled Radio Silence and was slated for release in early 2015, but as you're now reading this over a year past that date, it's quite apparent something got in the way, and whatever it was, Blake’s reticent nature certainly did not lend itself to buoyant reverie amongst fans (though it did, ironically, lead to literal radio silence).
Blake had entered the Frank Ocean (a collaborator on the album) territory (but without the over zealous opining – WHERE ARE YOU FRANK?) in terms of hotly anticipated releases, and there was nothing but confusion and perplexity for some time. Apparently, during the interim that was Blake’s Radio Silence announcement and the eventual release of Colour, Blake had managed to write two tracks on Beyonce’s Lemonade (full circle!) – “Forward” and “Pray You Catch Me” – along with heading out to Shangri La Studios to finish the record with much needed vigor from Duck Dynasty doppelganger Rick Rubin.
Colour came out of nowhere, but it wasn’t without excitement. It’s an offertory record that showcases a side of Blake that has long been underdeveloped – the Enfielder’s most expressive and innermost musings – subsequently breathing new life in Blake’s career (not that it was ever really without it). Colour opens with a “what might have been” in “Radio Silence,” and the once eponymous track turned solitary lead off exudes a singular glance into the now defunct direction that was Radio Silence, instead enacting a startlingly apologetic new Blake.
The production is as tight as ever, but somehow feels more fragile and wavering than quietly confident, a la Overgrown. In comparison to Blake’s previous releases, many are likely to accuse the Londoner of wearing his heart on his sleeve, when in reality, it’s a more mature comfort with his songwriting process, unabashed, but polite, like the production on a track like “Points,” in which Blake warps his "No longer" hook over trap and dubstep afrobeats that build and swell with momentum in alarmingly smooth fashion. “Points” along with “Love Me in Whatever Way” establish Blake’s most singer-songwriter intentions with little to no pretense over the forthcoming nature of Colour as a whole, with lines like "Where you lead me I will go," and "Tell me when I have to go / And then love me there." It's gut wrenchingly frail, as if Blake has only just begun to come to grips with his emotional capacities, but just like that, he shuts himself off on “Timeless,” featuring wild “sound the alarm” synth wandering, as if to indicate to Blake that the time has come to shut oneself off from this strange new world of open opining. Interesting side-note about “Timeless”: Kanye West was originally slated to appear as a feature on the track, however, according to Blake, the verse from Mr. West “didn’t materialize.”
The record bounces back with the fully transparent “F.O.R.E.V.E.R,” a ballad that features only Blake and keys, as his voice infectiously wavers over simple chord structures speaking on his time alone while “you” were away. An interesting line in “F.O.R.E.V.E.R” – "I notice I can still ghost the streets" – a seemingly innocuous phrase, but when juxtaposing Blake’s reclusive tendencies with his abnormal level of public interest, it highlights an intriguing dynamic with which Blake (and those closest to him) undoubtedly struggles with. “Put That Away and Talk to Me” is the mandatory millennial musing over the use of phones and technology and the schism they cause, but the name itself provides more enjoyment than the creepy lullaby that is the track itself. Colour feels increasingly morose as the album progresses, all the while maintaining some mode of hope in the interim on tracks like “I Hope My Life” with opening refrains of, "I hope I’m right / When speaking my mind / I hope my life is not a sign of the times," as he struggles to distinguish and relate at the same time. “My Willing Heart” embodies such struggles by narrating a sort of out of body experience for Blake, a narrative that resembles – get ready for a stretch – an Icarus fell type of story, except Blake’s sun is love, which makes him altogether too vulnerable for his liking. It should be noted that “My Willing Heart” has a co-write feature with one Mr. Frank Ocean, who didn’t necessarily lend any lyrics, but certainly lent a spiritual boost for Blake when it came to "Making a record on your laptop…”
Halfway through the record at this point, Colour really comes into its own once “Choose Me” comes along, a production whirlwind that has clever nods to Blake songs passed – “A Case You” – all the while asserting a new domineering side to the fully transparent Blake that’s become so prevalent on Colour – "You don’t owe me anything / What could I want back from you?". To this point, “Choose Me” is the best standalone track; a nice confluence of Overgrown and Enough Thunder. Colour finds its footing on “I Need a Forest Fire,” the album’s second single featuring fellow indie-demigod, Justin Vernon. His influence is felt immediately, as the airy organ noises lead in a Vernon yell and a muffled loop. Vernon leads off the first verse, and in all reality, the track itself feels like a Bon Iver song a la Eaux Claires 2015 more than anything else, but hearing both Blake and Vernon trading verses and harmonizing over pastoral Ralph Waldo Emerson sentiments is a truly beguiling experience. According to Vernon, the track came from “wonderful accidents and good friendship,” which echoes the same warm sentiments Blake expressed about working with Vernon, that the two seemed like they were “separated somewhere down the line.”
Colour’s final third issues the close of a hesitant love manifesto from Blake, with “Noise Above Our Heads” expressing Blake’s desire to connect with an unidentified suitor – “I’ll find no peace until I know” – as Connan Mockasin’s wandering bass leads the meandering thoughts of Blake along. The eponymous track features a soliloquy with Blake addressing a significant other as a last ditch effort to preserve an already fast fading love; it's “classic” James Blake, with elegant vocals over keys, and elevated pitches thanks to his preferred double tracking takes. “Two Men Down” takes a left turn elementally, as Justin Vernon’s production injects a livelier demeanor to the track that centers on Blake’s prospective outlook over competing with another man in order to gain a lover’s hand. “Modern Soul,” the premier single for Colour back in February 2016, Blake expresses his disdain for being overwrought with social interaction – “What I didn’t see was I was talking to so many people at once / I had no idea…” – and the interminable confusion of whether one’s interest in Blake is over his personal being or “because of a few songs.” The penultimate track of the album, “Always” features one of the most devastating ideas on Colours, in which Blake enters a dreamlike state where he can control and manipulate every aspect of his world to mold it into its most ideal form. “Meet You In the Maze” closes Colours in a sanguine yet indeterminate state – Vernon’s influence can be felt heavily on the acapella (except for a vocoder) track, a la Bon Iver’s “Woods” – as Blake assures the subject of his rendezvous request that “music can’t be everything.”
The Colour In Anything is most definitely Blake’s best record to date, despite the album’s first half struggling greatly with the themes of transparency and love within Blake’s purview. The trials and tribulations of James Blake in love make for an apparently personalized record that’s all too unfamiliar to Blake’s previous modus operandi, but has subsequently bolstered his songbook and production tactics. The album receives a giant assist from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, whose production on a handful of tracks really manages to stretch Blake past his former boundaries. While the album did not feature the fated 20-minute track that he had once hinted at in the past, The Colour In Anything distributes his muted sensibilities and elicits a more forthcoming Blake that will hopefully continue to open up in the future.