Show of strength in frailty

The CD cover for The Colour In Anything by James Blake.
The CD cover for The Colour In Anything by James Blake. PHOTO: POLYDOR

Boys do not cry, goes one of gender's oldest axioms, but James Blake has tossed that out the window without raising too much fuss over the course of two acclaimed albums.

On his third missive, The Colour In Anything, the 27-year-old Londoner intuits strength in frailty.

Belying his cool, precise exterior, he is breaking up, but he will not show it.

The title track is directed at a paramour when things are going south. "If one day I woke and couldn't find the colour in anything," he confesses, over lonesome piano, his distinctive croon double-tracked at the end, while chastising: "You must not be trying like I'm trying."

Blake is not interested in attention-grabbing psychedelic hues - his emotional palette is monochromatic, but richly so. He dives deep, immersed in oceanic undercurrents.

Sometimes, it feels like the depths would never end. In Radio Silence, he flings the refrain, "I can't believe this, you don't wanna see me/I'm sorry I don't know how you feel," through a digital cavern of sonorous drums and razor-sharp synths.

  • ELECTRONIC

  • THE COLOUR IN ANYTHING

    James Blake

    Polydor

    4/5 stars

He is not getting through to the other party and all he hears are his own thoughts, set adrift and ricocheting against the walls.

The sadomoschism continues in Love Me In Whatever Way, a dirge punctured by squelches, gauzy, white noise and a vocal that is shredded and fraying through time. "Giving up is hard to do," is a platitude, but one delivered with so much heart, it hurts.

The counterpoint comes with Put That Away And Talk to Me, a monologue suspended in outer space.

"I won't know pain anymore/I won't know haze anymore," he sounds, drugged yet pricked by every pin, as the music - delicate synths, barely there cymbals and a sped-up vocal recording - envelops him like half-remembered memories.

Things look brighter in I Need A Forest Fire, a bromance with feted musicians - Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and producer Rick Rubin.

Regeneration is on top of their minds, as Vernon and Blake trade verses. A subterranean synth surfaces, giving way to a surprising human yelp.

Vernon exhorts in his trademark falsetto, requesting "another dream… a forest fire", to which his mate Blake replies: "I hope you'll stop me before I build a wall around me."

Elsewhere in the surrealistic Two Men Down, he offers macabre humour as he rues his losses, wondering about his competition for his loved one.

"You know you sounded like knuckles that never cracked," he keens, perhaps flirtatiously, accompanied by what sounds like a dog barking and a machine whirring incessantly. The song seduces and rattles at the same time.

By the time he comes to the end with Meet You In The Maze, the listener has witnessed a transformation.

With his vocals manipulated through a vocoder, he realises that even "music can't be everything", as he wonders whether his ex-lover has moved on.

Splintered into a thousand James Blakes, the voice is both familiar and alienating, human and robotic, close and painfully distant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Show of strength in frailty'. Print Edition | Subscribe