As the old saying goes: a rising TIDAL of Lemonade lifts all boats. Thanks to the rising floodwaters that be Hurricane Bey, a co-writing credit on the slender 79 seconds of “Forward” floated James Blake back front and center with the surprise release of The Colour in Anything. And like the watercolor cover art depicts, there’s even a glint of light and new tonal colors to be found in Blake’s monochromatic sound.
For those who first became enamored with Blake’s fraught, fractured take on dubstep in 2009 and 2010, he’s now on the distant shore of pop. Electronic fans may prefer those earlier 12-inches, but modern R&B is where — to quote a song here — waves know shores. And on TCIA, Blake sounds most at home, collaborating with Frank Ocean, recording with Rick Rubin, remixing Drake, fielding calls from Bey, and having a superfan in ‘Ye. And even though Kanye pulled out of a collaboration at the last minute, it’s easy to see Blake’s appeal on a song like “Radio Silence,” wherein Blake wrings maximum heartbreak out of the most minimal of 808s, its skittering trap beat leading into a filter sweep at the chorus that’s a speedball of downcast and uplift at once.
Call Blake the McGyver of modern R&B, getting emotionally resonant results from the sparest of elements. With a piano plink, an electric squelch, and a heartbeat thump, “Love Me Whatever Way” evokes a state both fragile and resolute. Alternating between a yip and a blip of steel drum, the clipped voices of “Noise Above Our Heads” brings to mind his hypnotic early productions — fidgety, unslottable, and infectious. Layered over the ethereal soul of the title track, “Choose Me,” and closer “Meet You in the Maze,” these exhortations might suggest a new subgenre: ghostpel.
While Blake always cast himself as a dour loner-troubadour, he’s opened up the process a great deal here, working with Justin Vernon (Kanye’s go-to blue-eyed auto-crooner of yore) on “Maze” and “I Need a Forest Fire,” as well as Frank Ocean on “My Willing Heart” and “Always.” For those agonizing over a channel ORANGE follow-up, these haunting album highlights are tantalizing of what might lie ahead for Ocean. If there’s a downside to Anything, it’s the exhaustive length: 17 heart-trying wisps-of-songs that near the 80-minute mark, akin to needing a tissue and buying a Costco pallet of Kleenex. “Music can’t be everything,” Blake sings at album’s end, but even with those limits, he sure makes something.