Have you Heard? – (77) The latest from James Blake and Frank Ocean

I’m talking about “The Colour in Anything” by James Blake and “Blonde” by Frank Ocean.

I’ve been meaning to review James Blake’s “The Colour in Anything” for ages. It came out in May, at about the same time as Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”. I had to focus on Radiohead first and it was such a good album that I hardly listened to anything else for a while. I didn’t forget James Blake though. Frank Ocean’s new album “Blonde” is a more recent release, finally appearing more than four years after his brilliant debut “Channel Orange”. Its appearance has been much anticipated – and hyped – and it was preceded by a film of the music, or some of it, called “Endless”. I’ve yet to bother looking that up.

After the first couple of listens to Frank Ocean’s album, I thought, this is in the same mode as James Blake: understated, dark melodies, with those breakouts of weirdness. Maybe I could write about them together. On further research it turns out both artists were involved in the other’s album. That makes sense, and it makes writing a review of both even more sense!

I’ll start with James Blake, as he came first…

“The Colour in Anything” is James Blake’s third full album. The first, “James Blake” came out in 2011. It was an amazing piece, immediately establishing him as an artist with a sound of his own. Simple melodies, fragments: mournful, bewildered, with spectacular bass-heavy outbursts of sound. In my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey”, I pondered that quite a few of the songs were about introversion, an inability to connect, and the electronic outbursts were like the emotions of an introvert, who finally lets it out. Or maybe they were just the beats that reflected his background in the London dubstep scene. And it all worked brilliantly live. He and his guitar partner may be static on stage, but all those extraordinary diversions, made even more bass-heavy, create an amazing atmosphere, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Latitude. James Blake makes music for the night, but it envelopes you at all times.

And the new album continues the theme. All the themes. Its tone is dark, introspective, anxious even. The interludes are less bass-heavy than that first album, but more pronounced than on the second, “Overgrown”. It’s one of those albums to listen to as a piece – a symphony – though it is pretty long. Slowly but surely the layers reveal themselves, different things lodge in your mind. I’m still in discovery mode after all these months. As I listen now, I’m taken with the spirit of Stevie Wonder that infuses the album. Two consecutive tracks, “My Willing Heart” and “Choose Me”, feature first a lovely Stevie-esque melody and then one of those inspired never-ending choruses which punctuated “Songs in the Key of Life”.

Other highlights, so far, include the opener “Radio Silence” which could easily have been on the first album; “Love me in Whatever Way”; “Timeless”; the jittery “Put that Away and Talk to Me” (which would be perfect on the last few Radiohead albums); and “I Need a Forest Fire”, which features the ubiquitous Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. But it’s all good, all entrancing –  not music to dance in the streets to, but to put on in the evening, when you are feeling reflective. Even though the music of James Blake can also work brilliantly in a sunlit field because it is so interesting sonically.

An album which is definitely worth your time.

That word reflective. Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” is nothing if not that. Every time I listen to it, it just makes me start to think about things. There is something very introspective about it which just affects you. To me it feels like a dark album – with its quirks – but essentially a work which must reflect the rather tortured state of Frank Ocean’s mind. Maybe I’m reading too much into it; but when you have taken four years to make a record, I can only assume you are putting a lot of yourself into it, and maybe become just too perfectionist, to the point that you aren’t really sure what you want to say any more. “Blonde” feels a bit like that, and it is fascinating for it.

Like James Blake, Frank Ocean made a genre-changing debut, with “Channel Orange”. When I first heard it (courtesy of my son, Kieran) it brought back memories of some great 90s soul/jazz albums from the likes of Maxwell, D’Angelo and the less well-known Urban Species. And I could hear Prince all over it. But it soon became clear that this was the work of a true original.

“Blonde” isn’t initially as distinctive as its predecessor, but like “The Colour in Anything”, each listen reveals new layers. After three or four listens, I was really taken with the soulfulness – and angst – of “Self Control” and “Seigfried”, even though the former has effects like you’d expect on a Kendrick Lamar album. I can’t help but mention Stevie Wonder – 70s Stevie, of course – again.  And why shouldn’t his spirit be lurking, in albums made by people who have been steeped in soul music?

Other early notables are the opener “Nikes”, which could have been on the first album – or Kendrick’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” – and two songs which sample melodies from unlikely sources. “Close to You” overhauls the lyrics and distorts the tune, but is based on “(They Long to Be) Close to You” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which was made famous by The Carpenters in the 70s. And I thought I could hear The Beatles in “White Ferrari” half way through. It’s “Here, There and Everywhere”. That’s the thing about an artist like Frank Ocean. You can put him in a soul/R&B/ rap box, but he defies genres. And that’s what makes him so interesting.

But what makes him so affecting is that melancholy which suffuses the album. Like James Blake he must be grappling with a fair few demons. Music allows them to be expressed, sometimes obliquely, other times pretty directly. Their melodies are mostly wistful fragments of soul, simply expressed. But the music they surround them with, the excursions, are intriguing, ground-breaking, captivating. Music that makes you think as well as feel.

And definitely reflect

Two of the best albums of 2016, no doubt.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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5 Responses to Have you Heard? – (77) The latest from James Blake and Frank Ocean

  1. dc says:

    lots of gloomy doods making music. obviously a suitable soundtrack for a west ham fan this season. hopefully dilly dally will be a bit more upbeat- i sense you need cheering up.

  2. Haven’t got around to the James Blake album (need to correct that) but “Blonde” has been on repeat play. Excellent album!

  3. Resa says:

    I don’t know either album. TY for the tip!

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