James Blake – review

Heaven, London

James Blake is not the first artist to marry a confessional singer-songwriter sensibility to the more outré tropes of cutting-edge electronica. However, he is close to unique in managing to straddle those two musical worlds in a manner that appears organic, inventive and not even remotely contrived.

Blake's second album, Overgrown, finds the 24-year-old former dubstep producer and DJ pouring his seemingly troubled psyche over dislocated, dub-heavy beats that sound fantastic on headphones. Hunched over a keyboard and accompanied by a guitarist and drummer, he succeeds against the odds in transferring this intimidatingly intimate music into a stunning live performance.

It's a particularly striking achievement because Blake specialises in moods and atmospherics rather than fully fledged songs; you will wait in vain for a riff or a rousing chorus. Instead, he ladles a quavering falsetto, frequently reminiscent of Antony Hegarty, over gorgeous trip-hop-hued electronic abstractions such as the skeletal, tremulous I Never Learnt to Share.

It's fractured, distracted soul music for the digital generation. The lovesick title track to the new album could be Nick Drake singing with Massive Attack and is every bit as tremendous as that sounds, while his sumptuous yet brittle Feist cover, Limit to Your Love, is a brokenhearted torch song, all pregnant pauses and cavernous, looming spaces.

Despite being 6ft 5in tall, Blake is an intense yet awkwardly self-effacing presence beneath his floppy fringe, communicating little between numbers except for a well-spoken mumble about being glad to be here. This lack of showmanship hardly matters when he is able to unfurl songs such as To the Last, a spectral piano-led pledge of devotion that is musically minimalist but rich in emotional detail.

Blake has spoken in interview of falling in love before making his new album, and recent single Retrograde strives to capture the precise moment of impact of Cupid's arrow via its visceral, exhilarated chorus whoop of "Suddenly, I'm hit!" The packed venue appears to descend into a dreamy reverie, broken only by the unexpected rave beats of Voyeur.

After a mesmerising set, Blake ends the night sitting alone at his electric piano to croon through Joni Mitchell's wracked A Case of You. It's a fitting finale. This maverick performer may deal in avant-garde instrumentation and arrangements, but his subject matter remains inviolable; the inarticulate speech of the heart.

• What have you been to see lately? Tell us about it on Twitter using #GdnGig

• This article was amended on 10 April to correct the venue details of the concert reviewed


Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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