James Blake – Overgrown

Following up a worldwide hit debut album is a bitch. It’s a classic lose-lose proposition – with few exceptions, no matter how good the music is it will be relegated by history to “You know, that second album, whaddyacallit” status; and if it’s not up to par you’re crucified full stop. But there’s a certain kind of artist who doesn’t sweat the pressure. Such a one is James Blake. His self-titled debut was that rare chart topper that richly deserved the hype – two years later it already sounds like classic rock. On Overgrown, Blake beats the sophomore blues, mostly by making it clear it was never a conversation. He approaches the task with confidence and grace; no grand statement here – it’s as if he knows he has a long career full of big things ahead of him, and it’s OK if the second stop on the trip is merely outstanding.

But make no mistake, Blake’s songwriting and mastery of studio dynamics have only matured and improved. This is clear from the opening title track’s first thrillingly fluid cascading piano chords, soon followed by haunting strings, velvety bass, Blake’s trademark “bedroom yodel” vocals, and an eerily subdued backing vocal track that sounds like a ghost heard in an upper room.

Clocking in under 40 minutes, Overgrown is light on its feet; it’s also loose and surprisingly playful. And no, it doesn’t have as many instant gold standards as James Blake. Still, it manages to feel epic. Blake has everything working here. One facet of his genius is the way his music appeals to both guys and girls (or pick your dichotomy if gender types don’t work for you). It’s soft/hard, bitter/sweet, beautiful/freaked-out in exactly the right proportions, whether Blake’s warbling a ballad or delving into some new-school studio science.

Anyone who can rope in both Brian Eno and RZA for guest shots on the same album deserves props. Take a Fall for Me, featuring rhymes from the Wu-Tang impresario, has raised a lot of eyebrows; some say it should have been a B-side. But I think it actually works, much like some of the weird lyrical interludes on, say, a Massive Attack album. Digital Lion’s backwards melody and lurching narcoleptic stutter-step rhythm aren’t classically Eno-like at all (though maybe the dramatic moments of silence were his idea), but leave it to the 64-year-old innovator to keep mixing it up.

All over the album Blake shows he’s absorbed lessons from these musical titans and others. He’s assured, almost cheeky, as he switches up styles and takes chances. The warped arpeggiated keys, rubbery bassline and jagged broken beats of Life Round Here open out into tough strobe-lit acid funk. Voyeur lurches into a bit of edgy DFA-like indie house (yeah, you read that right) marked by glitched-out jazz instrumentation, a wicked bassline and a blaring reggae alarm.

But Blake will never escape his sensitive postmodern soul crooner image, nor does he want to. (Check the self-consciously moody portrait on the cover, sure to melt hearts despite its snowy setting.) I’ve always loved Blake’s gospel and blues sensibilities, foregrounded on the acoustic ditty DLM and the subdued but hypnotically gorgeous album closer Our Love Comes Back. At certain moments he sounds possessed by the ghost of Jeff Buckley (as produced by RZA and Eno perhaps); but even at its most earnest and pretty, there’s enough dubby weirdness embedded in the music to keep it from sounding like it belongs on primetime TV.

Every year a British singer with uncanny old-school soul or blues chops comes along to be the Great White Hope. Blake could probably sell twice as many records if he would just play it straight and become the next Adele. We’re incredibly fortunate he also happens to be a brilliant and forward-thinking electronic producer. But he deserves a place in the pantheon of artists who transcend the genre, along with Radiohead, Björk and Massive Attack. Overgrown isn’t as earthshaking as its predecessor, but it should age well and help nail down his legacy.