In the three-year gap between his sophomore album, Overgrown, and his latest release, The Colour in Anything, James Blake’s presence has grown exponentially. He’s been heralded as a hero for introverted bedroom producers, influencing and befriending some of the music industry’s most powerful artists. Kanye West, Madonna, and Kendrick Lamar have all publicly expressed their admiration for Blake’s music, with West famously announcing in 2013 during a radio interview that Blake was his “favorite artist.” Lamar tapped Blake to open for him on his gargantuan European tour for his critically acclaimed album DAMN. Blake also found his creative prowess sought after for collaborations — notably, Beyoncé, who featured Blake on “Forward,” off her 2016 magnum opus Lemonade.
At first glance, Blake’s elevated status seems strange, as his music does not follow the typical pop formula. In fact, Blake does not adhere strictly to anything. Experimentation with soul and R&B, along with elements from the U.K.’s underground dance scene, form the basis of his inspiration. However, when revisiting his 2011 self-titled debut album, the evidence for Blake’s current position as the definitive “artist’s artist” can easily be heard. Exquisite vocals layered upon organic instruments and deftly produced beats foreshadow a stripped-down, subdued sound that has influenced many newer artists, such as Sampha and FKA Twigs.
Blake’s ability to craft pop songs with a unique minimalist method serves as antidote to the occasionally overproduced pop that was the norm during the beginning of this decade. Top musicians grew wary of the gaudiness, and Blake — along with The xx — stayed one step ahead by taking a “less is more” approach.
Blake’s tender, personal songs allow listeners to connect his lyrics to their own experiences in a very intimate manner, almost as if you and Blake were alone sharing confessions and private thoughts that needed to be relieved. Overgrown continues along the same path he explored on his debut, but his voice returns with a new sense of confidence that would set the tone for the artist he was becoming.
With The Colour in Anything, Blake’s trademark soulful gloominess returns, but he no longer sounds stuck within the confines of a bedroom. (The cover suggests this, depicting Blake alone outdoors amid a desolate, watercolor landscape. Clocking in at an impressive 75 minutes, The Colour in Anything’s production sounds more expansive and even slicker than before, partly due to the fact that Rick Rubin co-produced the album, which was largely recorded at Rubin’s legendary Shangri La Studios. During the long process of creating the album, Blake sought help from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean, whom Blake referred to as his biggest inspiration for his new album.
While the outside creative help can be heard, The Colour in Anything remains very much an individual product, sharing lyrics about relationships, heartbreak, and self-improvement. Blake’s breakup with his long-distance partner, Warpaint’s guitarist and vocalist Theresa Wayman, serves as the inspiration for much of the album, beginning with the opener, “Radio Silence” — an analysis of the adverse effect of miscommunication on their relationship. Standout track “I Need a Forest Fire,” which features Vernon, expresses the desire for a metaphorical forest fire to burn down the barriers that have been constructed between the couple in their relationship, with hopes of starting over from the ashes. Blake ends the song by repeating, “Stop before I build a wall around me,” referring to how one isolates themselves in times of despair, something that neither Blake nor Vernon are strangers to.
It may be easy to write off The Colour in Anything as just another breakup album, but it serves as the beginning of a new era for James Blake. Despite the hardships, Blake maintains the notion that he has left the relationship with a broader sense of self-awareness, responsibility, and balance. The final track, “Meet You in the Maze,” ends with Blake’s distorted voice assuring that “Music can’t be everything.”
Blake likely ended the album with this line to remind not only listeners, but himself to not get so busy with projects to the point where it hinders personal relationships and personal growth, a kind of wisdom that can only be earned through hard experience. While he remains highly in-demand for creative collaborations, one thing is clear: The music industry needs James Blake more than he needs it, and he understands this well.
James Blake, Monday-Wednesday, Dec. 4-6, 8 p.m., at Herbst Theatre. $55; jamesblakemusic.com