James Blake review – a spine-chilling, melancholic homecoming

Hammersmith Apollo, London
Sung live, Blake’s skeletal songs become fleshier and more intense, the otherworldly atmosphere skilfully ramped up by his drummer and guitarist

London loves a homegrown success and James Blake more than fits the bill. Boasting a Mercury award win and a Grammy nomination, he’s Kanye’s favourite artist and both wrote for and appeared on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Then there’s Madonna, who said of Blake: “Some of his songs just kill me.”

Yet the sight of a sold-out, rapturous crowd in the capital visibly awes him. “This is quite an incredible view from here,” the 28-year-old says, “not one I’ve had in London in my career. It’s really, really lovely to be home.”

What unites this celebrity respect and audience adoration is Blake’s skilful blend of dubstep-inspired rhythms, classically trained piano and angsty balladeering. Sitting behind a bank of keyboards, he plays the spare, soulful start of Always, taken from latest album, The Colour in Anything. It’s a song that sums up his duality and attention to detail, a bold, jagged vocal sample from collaborator Frank Ocean’s Godspeed cutting through Blake’s own smooth, fragile falsetto as layers of synths, piano, and hissing atmospherics add to the disorientating, otherworldly atmosphere.

In a live setting, Blake’s skeletal songs become fleshier. The sirens that lurk in the background of Life Round Here on record are turned up and brought forward to become an aggressive threat, an urban soundtrack made intensely real. The plaintive vocal of Choose Me becomes desperate and Timeless’s melancholy is newly harsh. Every bleep is bolder, every thud and clatter more spine-chilling.

The plaintive vocal of Choose Me becomes desperate … James Blake.
The plaintive vocal of Choose Me becomes desperate … James Blake. Photograph: Venla Shalin/Getty Images

Blake achieves this bruising makeover by choosing authenticity over “automation”. “I’m proud to do it unaided by any laptops,” he says, confessing that the result has been hard won and without drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist and keyboardist Rob McAndrews: “I might as well never leave the house.” The musicians play on separate platforms alongside one another and while it’s Blake that gets the solo spotlight, the truth is rendered in black and white when the three are silhouetted against the screen behind them, their shadows overlapping and merging into one.

The band’s practised precision shows on a re-creation of Blake’s 2009 remix of Untold’s Stop What You’re Doing, the screaming synths and staggered beats are brutal, urgent and a world away from the stark brevity of Forward, which follows. Blake has steadily moved away from his dance-influenced start but where he’ll go next is debatable. Songs such as I Hope My Life hint at a future in gothic chamber music, yet, joined by Moses Sumney for the affecting, stripped-down The Colour in Anything, Blake carries off the introspective singer-songwriter act with aplomb.

For now, the key to Blake’s success is his refusal to choose. He glides from the perfect electronic pop of I Need a Forest Fire and Retrograde to a heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, ending alone on stage, looping his soaring voice for the multi-looped gospel of Measurements. He had better get used to being awestruck because his London shows are only going to get bigger from here on.

Academy, Leeds, 2 November. Box office: 0113-389 1555. Manchester Academy, 3 November. Box office: 0161-832 1111. Brixton Academy, London, 5 November. Box office: 020-7771 3000.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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