Keyboards and piano are the most popular instruments for kids who want to learn how to play music. According to a 2014 study, a whopping 58% of students who seek lessons do so for keys and piano. Now think of all the kids who quit, all the kids who don’t practice, all the kids who see a lack of sound when they stare at black and white keys shaped like spilled Jenga blocks. It’s at once an easy instrument and a cabinet of endless opportunities. There comes a point at which students understand the depth that can be lured out of simplicity, the unspoken emotion that can be told through keys, through the pressure at which they’re pressed, through the speed at which the mallet hits the string — that this is a machine essentially hooked up to their heart. Getting it to transcribe those feelings, however, takes a certain level of bonding to establish.
With a few EPs in 2010, James Blake introduced himself to the world as someone reworking the headaches of EDM into something far deeper under the (honestly, humorous) label post-dubstep. His ability to transpose pain and admiration through both keys and piano was heralded then, but it’s now, here on The Colour In Anything, that Blake can pour his thoughts through something other than lyrics. Now that skinny British boy has found his soul, and that soul is hurting. Hearing him articulate its cracks and aches with such genuine sorrow, such throbbing beats, such tearful piano elicits nothing less than a heavy heart swaying in time to the bass. As with anyone complaining of love lost between pleas for it to return, it begins to become tiresome — no matter how smooth your voice may be. But Blake manages to make a whopping 17-song album transition seamlessly, holding your attention thanks to a careful execution of space between those very keys.
Blake makes good on the darkness of his early days. “Radio Silence” begins with solemn piano and his howl pushing through fog. “I can’t believe this/ You don’t wanna see me,” he sings, a nod to Bill Withers’ struggle to overcome romantic desolation. The first song written for the album also doubles as the tone-setter. Blake needs more time to repair a relationship he watched shatter, but he’s struggling to come to terms with what that entails. And thus, he throws himself not into the keyboard, but away from it, leaning off keys in a way that creates more noise than had he written elaborate melodies. “Points” follows suit, a dirty dub beat lamenting the partner’s change in personality while whipping electronic noise whirls in circles behind him until a bass pops. “Timeless” expands the dark tones even farther with a half-trap percussion, a platform on which Kanye West was supposed to rap over until he bailed. Even “I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix)”, a club banger, hints at something ominous climbing from within Blake.
All of that sound can be scaled back because Blake itches to literally say more this time. When paired with poetry, the compositions excel, and Blake’s words are very much that. A line like “I suggest you love like love’s no loss” on “Waves Know Shores” is pure enough to bring a tear to an eye, even without the solemn brass sounding behind him, for it’s the type of advice that comes after months of rumination, revision, and acceptance. Even bright numbers like the experimental “Two Men Down” boast lines fit for printing in library-bound books: “Oh what a day I chose for you/ To tell you that I loved you/ You know you sounded like knuckles that never cracked.” The Colour In Anything is poetry meant to be read, and when sung, those words breathe on their own.
Maybe his pain isn’t meant to burden, but to aid. Instead of riling up the masses like his debut LP did, he approaches listeners with a guidance counselor’s eye and a sympathetic smile, a stack of empty journals under his arm to hand out. Now that he’s hurting, his own stories are penned on their pages this time; and while that should indicate an invasion of space — pages lost in a notebook that’s gifted with the intent of it becoming yours and yours only — it acts as a tighter bond between the listener and singer, offering his own cavernous pain as a hole in which they can hide in, cry in, heal in. “Have I been unkind to you?/ Have I got a cloud in hell of mind?” he sings on “Choose Me”, the song swelling vocal shrieks and beeps as he drives himself crazy trying to decipher his scabs and faults. “I’m here when you don’t sleep so well,” he then begs rather creepily on “Noise Above Our Heads”. It’s only on the album’s penultimate track, “Always”, that Blake finally loosens the rope his own heart tied around his neck. A spliced, stuttering vocal sample recalls a sweet world as Blake sings, “This is how I want to feel/ It’s so easy,” with desperate hopefulness. He’s willing to do anything to make his partner stay in love with him, and by extending recounted tales of failure and questioning to listeners, he offers them a chance to avoid making those errors themselves.
For all his talk about wanting to make a collaborative record, Blake certainly fell short, but it seems it’s for the better. The Colour In Anything ropes Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon onboard for the glistening white boy duet “I Need a Forest Fire” and takes vocal samples from others along the way, including Donny Hathaway’s “Giving Up” in “Love Me in Whatever Way”. No collaboration threatens to steal the spotlight, but “My Willing Heart”, co-written by Frank Ocean, shows Blake works with others not by letting them in, but by opening up space even further, allowing them to do as they please in a way he offers to work around. Jazz piano and a wheezing backbeat unfold over grumbling bass. How else could Ocean get away with a line so Millennial as “You’re still on my screen” and still make it emotionally gutting?
In the three years since Blake released Overgrown, he’s been silent, but not absent. He’s DJ’ed songs live, premiered songs on his Radio 1 show, and teamed with Quentin Blake on murals. But those Quentin Blake murals are more than a cheeky partnership with a shared surname. It’s a mirror image of this collection of work, a shadowed James Blake miles away from the sunny side of life, a knotted tree of problems on his right and a set of tangled issues on his left. It all happens in the album’s end. The bare piano of the title track, a heartfelt ballad offering a final romantic swing, turns into bare vocals. Closer “Meet You in the Maze” lays heavy on vocal distortion while Blake contemplates giving up, no other instrument appearing beside his words. He then moves into bare soul, his words lingering as silence follows. Now that a broken heart’s left him wounded, the melancholic fissure of his music widens, dropping him into a pool deeper than any he’s ever found himself swimming in before. Yet here he is, splitting it up, sectioning it off, and presenting a work that feels equal parts natural and divine. Even those who stick with piano for 27 years can’t color the world the way they see fit, or, more accurately, can’t color in people they wish never changed in the first place.
Essential Tracks: “Radio Silence”, “The Colour In Anything”, and “My Willing Heart”