The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

REVIEW: James Blake – ‘Before’ EP (Republic / Polydor)


In a sentence:

Arguably James Blake’s most out-and-out dancefloor orientated work yet, ‘Before’ is a reminder of what we’re missing under lockdown.

One of contemporary music’s most critically applauded yet understated emotional evocators, James Blake has become a beacon for a range of intriguingly vulnerable and deeply textured sounds within the span of his career. Emerging from the UK’s pivotal post-dubstep scene, an era that marked a distinctive shift from the oversaturation and aggression of its predecessor into more ambient and melodic composition structures, the distinctive fragility interwoven into his soundscapes emit a dimension of depth that is unparalleled in most creative landscapes.

READ MORE: James Blake // ‘Assume Form’ – album review

Having previously worked with high profile artists like Beyonce, Travis Scott and Bon Iver, Blake has spent 2020 utilising his soulful and textured dance structures to further the contemplative dexterity of acts like The Flatbush Zombies and Slowthai, as well as dropping singles that wallowed in sparse, mediated melodies, in a return to the core sounds that established him. A direct reaction to the inability to express and be free within club settings, Blake ironically created this new dance-inspired EP out of frustration with lockdown restrictions, building on the comfortability and emotional conclusivity of previous efforts, and incorporating upbeat tempos into their DNA.  

The core of a quintessential James Blake song lies in the textures and harmony of the sounds he pulls together and ‘Before’ is no exception. Whether it be the soft bubbling bass that nestles ebbing cries before a catchy drum pattern rescues the listener on ‘I Keep Calling’, or the distorted vocal quivers that give way to a range of disjointed piano lines and graceful string interjections on ‘Do You Ever’, the balance between robot-ified nuances and uplifting use of organic elements find themselves unifying to mirror the autonomy of Blake’s emotions.

Music video for ‘Before’

It is this understanding of his own emotional parameters that propel Before. On the title track, a realisation that he “must be in pain because [he’s] never needed… before” presents him with the dramatic conclusion that he can no longer exist in a state of singularity as he has become accustomed to being a whole. Driven by a steady kick drum that almost feels like a continuous, anticipating heartbeat, ‘Before’ presents a comfortability in action whilst bearing all against a vacuous backdrop.

Of course, it’s easy to reciprocate the strangeness felt by Blake in putting out a simultaneously upbeat but candid emotional piece of work. A deep sense of want is projected through trying to fulfil expectations on the earnest ‘Summer Of Now’, or by the thought that there was “more” on the aforementioned ‘Do You Ever’ yet both are riddled with infectious rhythm and quaint shuffling tones that seem to contrast desires. Though the listener may be drawn into the melancholy tone of such tracks, it’s hard to ignore the physiological reactions their body may undertake as they step along to every sombre sentiment. As someone who cut his teeth in rave scenes, it’s not surprising that the energy that perpetuates throughout these spaces would be reflected through the retrospective musings of Before.

Battling themes of ideality, awareness of how far his emotions can carry him and drawing from his current frustrations, its emboldening to see James Blake’s blossoming from introverted outsider to a fully realised balladeer as a undeniably evident triumph through his latest brief but potent project. (8/10) (Daniel Antunes)

Listen to Before EP by James Blake here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.