What makes James Blake’s music so terrific, when it works, is that he’s able to combine two opposite worlds so flawlessly that it feels effortless. As a classically trained pianist who also studied pop music in college, this dude now operates in dubstep. And what separates him as one of the leading artists in the genre stems directly from his background: He understands what makes a melody work. When he composes his music — a haunting and ambient blend of synths, vocals and bass — the songs maintain a human-element while the sounds surrounding his vocals dance in and out of an electronic, robotic space. Inside these weird hums and womping bass lines, he often will present a hook — something that we, the listener, can grab, enjoy and even hum to ourselves. That’s not to say a musician’s work needs to be catchy to be enjoyable, but when an artist like Blake typically creates such a chaotic sound, a solid, accessible hook is attractive because it keeps the listener balanced.
On his latest, Enough Thunder, this happens… sometimes. The six-song EP has a short tracklist but at times feels like an eternity. Sounds are dragged on and on and we’re just not quite sure what Blake is trying to do. On “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” the single released a couple months back that features the vocals of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Blake creates a blissful, pulsing track full of Vernon’s dramatically haunting falsetto; yet after awhile, the song just levels out. We’re building towards something, and something, and something — but it’s never paid off. Rather than hold our attention, the repetition becomes boring. The same goes for the opening track, “Once We All Agree.” It’s only four and a half minutes long, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why. And within that lies the biggest problem with the EP. The emptiness that felt so purposeful on his debut LP now feels elongated and forced.
But the EP does have some great moments, and ironically it’s when Blake drops the dubset and channels his classical piano roots. In his cover of “A Case of You,” his nervous tenor voice dances elegantly over a melancholy piano. Then in Enough Thunder‘s title track, he shows that he’s capable of creating his own piano ballad. “None of us are crying,” he croons. “So we can hope for heartbreak now.” It may not be the sound that made Blake famous across the blogosphere and he could’ve, at times, no doubt used an editor to focus the sound on the entire EP, but his Antony-esque bellowing is both lovely and heartbreaking and provokes an emotional response from the listener, and with music, is there much more that we can ask?