Have you heard the news? Modern technology is turning us all into robots. It’s true. We spend all day either on Facebook or checking our phones so instead of human contact we’re interfacing with the machine. There’s a lot of mileage in that stuff and, with each new technological leap, I see more novels, films and philosophical tracts exploring the consequences in detail. I, however, have always thought the opposite scenario was more interesting, meaning what would happen if the machines wanted to become human? Yes, it’s all very Blade Runner and chances are, when Artificial Intelligence eventually happens, it won’t be as dramatic and the machines won’t give heart-wrenching speeches as they’re being shut down. The thought, however, remains a compelling one. Is programmed emotion still a genuine emotion? Could a machine acquire humanity through learning and repetition?
I’m asking such questions because, when I listen to James Blake’s self-titled debut album, it feels like the creation of some damaged, unhappy robot trying to figure out what being human means. Mechanised beats stutter underneath repeated lines, each time with a different emphasis on a particular harmony or phrasing, accompanied by backing music which surges and recedes as necessary. Some songs consist of a single sentence repeated over and over, as if trying to unlock the emotion contained within. ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ has the line “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them” sung continuously, slowly building, until suddenly at one minute and 45 seconds we receive a revelation of sorts, as the melody, words and music connect and deliver the emotion that was present all along. The machine simply needed to restart and retry in its quest to uncover the mystery of conscious feeling.
For reasons that I can’t quite fathom, I find the album mesmerising. It manages to be both distant and personal at the same time, unwilling to concede to either feeling. The album’s only false step is the Feist cover ‘Limit to Your Love’. Instead of Blake’s usual lyrics, which come across as fragmented Modernist poetry, we get Feist’s overtly romantic observations. When placed next to his own tortured, mechanised distress signals, the words to ‘Limit To Your Love’ sound fatuous in comparison, a problem made worse by the music’s lack of potency. Elsewhere Blake is magnificently bleak with the vocoder-laden ‘Lindisfarne I’ sounding like ELO if Jeff Lynne had been bombarded with four straight weeks of ECT (trust me, that’s a good thing). At just under two minutes ‘Give Me My Month’ sees Blake’s penchant for gospel-tinged arrangements come into full bloom with the music exuding an air of clipped, majestic perfection. ’The Wilhelm Scream’ is the closest thing on the album to a normal-sounding song (excluding ‘Limit to Your Love’), and it bodes well for Blake that he is capable of making it succeed without compromising his approach in any way. Still in his early twenties, Blake is seemingly able to create full-length songs, fluctuating half-songs and electronic experiments at will, and make them work when juxtaposed with one another.
The entire album has a cerebral feel, making something like North by Darkstar sound positively pop in comparison. The cover art has a David Byrne-esque quality to it, and Blake appears to share Byrne’s quest to avoid easy sentiment, as well as his overtly intellectualised approach, which many can find off-putting. The spare, automated tone of the album can certainly feel desolate and forbidding, but it is this very same desolation that ultimately redeems the whole enterprise. Underneath the loops and treated vocals, hiding behind the fractured lyrical emissions, there lurks a real human being. The humanity that breaks through the electronic veneer sounds distressed and frightened, stopping the music from coming off as a cold, intellectual exercise. Hardly a dubstep Blood On The Tracks, it succeeds more as an album that suggests rather than describes, avoiding heavy sentiment in favour of insinuation, as one senses the concealed consciousness lurking just below the abstract surface. What is emotion, and what are the things that trigger an emotional reaction? Deep inside James Blake’s first full-length release there is an attempt to uncover the answer. Sometimes, though, we must go back to the start and say the same thing all over again several times, in our attempt to convince others that we are, in fact, human beings.