The Colour in Anything artwork
One might argue that there are two ways of looking at the world: You can choose to see it as a study in binaries—good and evil, happy and sad, classic and trash, etc.—or you can choose to appreciate its vast complexities, its gradations, its subtle ironies and bittersweet truths. As it happens, one might also argue that there are far more than two ways of looking at the world.
Growing older tends to be a process of coming around to the latter, more expansive view of things. A breakup at 21, for instance, is a pitched battle of extremes, a line drawn between two opposing forces, each cruel enough to break the other’s heart into a million pieces. A breakup at 26, meanwhile, is more likely a reminder that you’ve felt such unhappiness before and will again. You probably have a lot of empathy for the other person and ultimately understand that human relationships are an imperfect institution. Do you realize how interminably long a human lifetime is? Do you realize how much time that leaves to make mistakes? We live too long, people change, etc.
James Blake, in 2016, would agree. In fact, he says it himself: “don’t use the word forever,” he sings on “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.” He continues: “we live too long to be so loved / people change, and I can’t be tethered / we think we are the only ones.” The song appears on his new album, The Colour in Anything. It is an album on which uncertainties not only linger but are in fact the guiding principle. The only thing exact in this album’s universe is the precision with which the music hurtles forward, each pulse of a drum mechanically pulling in the more volatile flaps of lyricism.
To hear him tell it in recent interviews—and, quite frankly, as can be gleaned just from a studied listen to the album—The Colour in Anything is the release on which James Blake has learned to be less of a fussy perfectionist, and, by extension, to become a far more compelling artist. On The Colour in Anything, Blake pulled insight from the likes of Rick Rubin, Frank Ocean, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, letting go, as he had insisted upon in the past, of end-to-end control of his music. He's also described it as a coming-of-age album, which, yeah, realizing there are things you can’t control is part of growing more mature. “I can’t always love you,” Blake considers on the album’s title track, not so much malicious as gently aware.
Blake has described the realization, in the process of recording this album, of the limits that his early fame might place on his personal growth. “A lot of people who enter showbusiness at 21 or younger are frozen at that point and it’s really only up to them to defrost themselves,” he told the Guardian in an interview published last week. In response, he’s described taking conscious efforts to become a more fully rounded person at 27. It shows, as The Colour in Anything is not only the kind of rich, accomplished album that deserves audiences' full attention, it is also the most rounded of Blake's career.
Almost as soon as Blake began to get attention for his lively deconstructions of dance music (his breakout EP and single were tellingly titled “CMYK,” as in the full-color printing scheme), he seemed inclined to turn away toward the grayer expanse of melancholy singer-songwriter balladry. His career since has been caught between the twin impulses of wanting to be an effective confessional songwriter and to play with titanic basslines. Despite consistent flashes of brilliance that have won him fans and prompted artists like Kanye West and Beyoncé to seek him out, he has fully captured theses intersecting goals only a handful of times: The staggering “Wilhelm Scream” on his debut album, for instance, or his swirling Bon Iver collaboration “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” and, most notably, his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which suggested the tremendous power Blake could conjure up with a piano and a truly knockout song. Yet much of James Blake’s music has felt like a series of sketches, ideas that peter out too quickly in claustrophobic spaces, songs that couldn’t quite see the forest for the trees.
The Colour in Anything by contrast feels like an exploratory stroll through the forest, albeit a forest where oddities lurk (consider the naked women floating in the rather creepy tree on the album’s cover, painted by Roald Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake). For one, it stretches out over a sprawling 17 songs, with a run time that matches that of his first two albums combined (to the minute). To look at it through an even wider lens, it’s also an album on which a more complex idea of being human is itself subject to exploration.
Simply put, if you were to characterize James Blake’s discography in one word, you might go with something like: sad. Just take some lyrics from the new album’s opening song: “In my heart there’s a radio silence going on.” Yet to describe The Colour in Anything as sad would be ironing out most of its depth, not to mention its fundamental optimism. For one, that opening track pairs spare piano plunks—what might have been the entire song on a past James Blake album—with swooning jolts of noise and an insistent synth pulse that tip it close to dancefloor material. On the follow-up track, “Points,” a haunting ballad opens up first into a drum machine patter and then burps of bass and ultimately a searing, alarm-filled synth cacophony. Nearly every song holds abrupt twists like this, paths that become more treacherous before suddenly happening upon gaping chasms of bass. On “Timeless,” Blake dives head-on into the clanking sounds of something resembling a drop, while “I Hope My Life,” peels back the steady anthem on its surface to reveal the house song chugging along below. The promise of those early dance music deconstructions finally comes full circle here, finding moves in those odd left turns that accentuate the power of the songwriting.
And then there are those songs, with lyrics that ask us to contemplate what would happen if we woke up to a world without color, that look at a breakup with the playful but plaintive lens of interlocking phrases that remind “(every now and then) you’re still on my screen,” that politely suggest to a lover “I'd rather you choose me.” There, on “Choose Me,” the music seems to grasp for answers and certainty, the vocals soaring into a high falsetto and tumbling into distended, processed lows. Finding truths becomes an iterative process. The sparkling highlight of the album, “I Need a Forest Fire,” proposes a cleansing ritual, as Justin Vernon insists “I request another dream.” On “Waves Know Shores,” possibly the most beautiful song of a thoroughly beautiful album, Blake turns over this idea of knowing someone like “waves know shores”—intimately? in tidal rhythms? constantly receding or constantly returning? uniquely in each instance or eternally unchanging over millennia?—and concludes, perhaps presumptuously, “I suggest you love like love’s no loss.”
The final song, “Meet You In The Maze,” discovers love as the essential act of letting go: “That's why I see you clear as air,” Blake muses, “And it's not from my creating / Music can't be everything.” On a simple level, there’s probably a story of Blake the obsessive musical genius realizing that no level of technical proficiency can capture certain lived intangibles, but, in a broader artistic context, it’s a message for anyone: To live is to look outward, to let people in, to explore the forest and take risks, to escape the protective cocoon of being uniformly sad for the more fascinating world of embracing the world in all its colour.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.