James Blake seems to have been feeling reflective lately. Having penned an admirably honest essay about his mental health struggles during his ascent to fame in the early 2010s (TEN YEARS(!) ago), Before finds him “finally having confidence to put [his] own voice on dancefloor rhythms.” I’d always assumed his meticulously spare production style originated because he purposely wanted to subvert those dancefloor rhythms. Before therefore seems to function as a cathartic release of sorts, and it’s a cause for cheer that Blake feels free to make the music he wants to these days. But what does Blake’s catharsis sound like?
Well, for a start he certainly does dial up the BPM on these tracks. We’re not talking propulsive EDM gym soundtrack levels of tempo, but opener ‘I Keep Calling’ is definitely dance music. Driven by Blake’s pitched-up vocals singing vaguely about calling up a lover, it’s pleasant enough, but quite honestly I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times and I cannot recall anything interesting about the production. At most, it makes you go: “Huh. James Blake on a dance track.”
The title track is better. Over the years, I’ve found that Blake can be susceptible to an awkward turn of phrase, and the refrain “you move me naturally” is the culprit here. Thankfully, its repetition is overcome by the song’s solid structure – verses and choruses that build steadily up to Blake cooing the word “before” into the ether. The word sounds like a release; an exhalation letting past regrets go. It feels like the purpose of this EP realised in a moment, and it is gratifying to hear.
‘Do You Ever’ is a reminiscence session which finds Blake pondering a former girlfriend and it’s probably the best thing on this EP. As on ‘Before’, the beat builds through the first verse, but it then dips after the chorus into a lower tone as Blake meditates on the past. It gives the whole thing a slightly melancholic air, which makes the slowed down outro feel like a refreshing conclusion. The spacious production sounds as if Blake has just stepped out of a stuffy room infused with negativity onto a balcony to breathe in fresh air. It’s a highlight.
The EP closes with ‘Summer of Now’. It’s intro has the same feeling of spiritual resolution that Frank Ocean’s ‘Godspeed’ has (fitting, given Blake co-wrote it and has recently released his cover as a single). Again, there’s something clunky about the very specific line “I’m not the summer of 2015”, but the song as a whole has the same pleasant note of resolve that has run through this EP. While the track is light on the innovative production one has come to expect from Blake, it’s a satisfying end to this release.
It’s always hard to know what to take from a James Blake EP. His previous smaller releases have tended to stand on their own rather than being an indication of a future direction. Before certainly has the feeling of an emotional clearout – a moment of peacemaking with the past. Some of Blake’s past EPs have been career highlights. While that’s far from the case here, one hopes that Before is a necessary release that precedes some great work.
Words by Tom Burrows