The best albums of 2013: No 5 – Overgrown by James Blake

James Blake's Mercury-winning second album was as much a folk or jazz record as it was a piece of electronic music

See all our Best Albums of 2013 coverage here

The Mercury music prize, awarded by industry experts to the best UK album of the year, ruffled feathers in 2013 with a shortlist that was even safer than usual. With five chart-toppers and only one record that missed the top 20, there wasn't room for outliers, and the token folk and jazz nominees had disappeared altogether. And yet James Blake won with Overgrown, in effect a contemporary vocal jazz album that also drew on a host of modern folk traditions.

His querulous voice, and the curling briar-stem melodies he applies it to, has its closest analogue in Billie Holiday on Lady in Satin. As with that album, state-of-the-art production is a rich, generous backing for minimalist songwriting, where papery ribbons of melody get caught in uncaring draughts, and scales tread carefully as if negotiating a broken staircase. On the opening, title track, his central chorus line is a breathtaking update of her ruminations – hope and longing swing upward, are briefly lit, and then pad softly down into a dim world of inner brooding. It's a trick he repeats with a little more brightness on the single Retrograde, whose backing is like some cyberpunk version of Ray Ellis's orchestral arrangements for Holiday. These are songs for a deoxygenating little dive bar in a dystopian metropolis, its candles slowly sputtering out.

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Like the original jazz ballads, his songs share DNA with dance music, particularly the exquisite tension between on and off-beat in dub's brittle and befogged skank. On I Am Sold, a two-note digidub bassline becomes the engine for the track, like a half-memory of Jamaica, while a wordless vocal note at Retrograde's climax turns imperceptibly into a wailing dub siren. On Digital Lion, its title framing Blake as a kind of neo-calypso crooner, there's a similar blare that again hovers between organic brass and dancehall foghorn. One of Blake's heroes is Mala, the dubstep pioneer who shook dub's steady beats on to a parallel axis – Blake traces the line further, going past Burial's night bus and into the coffee house and the jazz club.

Added to this folk art is another American form, rap, in its spacious production but also the very wordplay itself. Blake's breakthrough track was 2010's CMYK, and its sampling of Kelis and Aaliyah now seems simplistic what with every doe-eyed boy this side of the Vaccines pledging their undying love to them; he's now matured by getting the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA to deliver tangily freeform verse from the corner of an English village green: "Turn the square dance into a passion hug … I wouldn't trade her smile for a million quid."

All of which would be a game of spot-the-reference to be played by record-fondling mouthbreathers (guilty as charged), were it not so expertly and emotively folded together, and were the writing not so strong. The brilliantly mercurial Retrograde, along with all the songs here, were good enough to reverse a retrograde Mercury.

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Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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