So, I wasn’t really sure what I’d do for January AOTM. It’s been stressful and difficult few months and my best intentions of getting January finished by early new year came up short of nothing more than inspiration. I just didn’t see much interesting around, and I wasn’t listening to much new stuff either: even 6 Music wasn’t on much any more. The travails of a young family, brutal work and no downtime left me delving back into the past (Eno, mostly) trying to find some tranquility in the modern noise.
But then this arrived, almost serendipitously, out of the mist. And of course, James Blake was both a great option and an album that would server as a hopeful antidote to the current messy modern world. It’s only a bonus that I’ve been a big fan of his, but the question I wondered was: could another album of his songs do anything new? Perhaps it didn’t have to. His music was mostly only even in a genre of its own that – while he gained many imitators – he seemed to have his very own dubby, falsetto, reverb-heavy, then four-four slices of music that was both rich and warm then desolate and icy.
So what did I expect of this? Nothing, as I’d had no advance warning or visibility, and that’s sometimes no bad thing. In my first few listens here – a week or rotation has already been hugely enjoyable if embryonic in my opinions of this as a review at arm’s length – I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve heard. For a songwriter and sonic experimentalist that has carved out such strange spaces over his previous albums, he’s also managed to take in emotional lyrics, albeit some that so feel wrapped up in his musical ambition that that skill is lost.
Some of his previous work is staggering – Digital Lion, Overgrown, Radio Silence – tracks that only get better with time, and so this has a high standard to follow. I’m not sure all of the LP hits those heights. Some of it is pretty cold, perhaps it’ll warm up over time, but there are some gems. It seems obvious but Where’s The Catch (above) with Andre 3000 at last breaks some of the constrictions of its companions that sometimes feels too forced and deliberately restrained. When beats are as crisp, and warmth flecks the darkness, you do wonder why he doesn’t want to break free as much elsewhere. I’d love to see more of that. However, the title track is wonderful, and while I am not part of the auto-tune crowd, Blake’s collaborations are inventive and interesting.
In short, it’s a work in progress, but I’m hugely enjoying having new James Blake in my life, and it’s just the sort of music to shut out the noise, the angst, the anger, the stress and the discord. I can, at least, salute that.
Yes, I’m late, but it’s worth it, I hope. This album is the first artist to land a second AOTM, and after the effect the first had on all of us, it seemed almost too obvious to revisit it when there’s so much other music around. However, it’s actually a choice that makes so much sense, because really, there’s a definitive break from the past, and perhaps the appearance of one of the most exciting pop music artists for a long while.
So, what did we learn from Christine And The Queens’ sparkling debut in 2016? An album that was a spring sleeper hit (two years after it surfaced in France), relaunched in a post-Brexit haze where we all needed some musical escapism. In my case, I was one of those wandering around in a teary, beery, existentialist haze at Glastonbury whose day was transformed by one of those ‘moments’ that makes the festival so magical. Christine And The Queens’ set on the Other Stage as the rain fell was one that’ll stay long in the memory. There’s no way a French artist complete with slickly choreographed dancers should’ve melted muddy hearts but Tilted, iT, Narcissus Is Back and Here were pop music of the absolute finest. Rubbery synths, crisp percussion, and beguiling vocals singing about love and loss that sounded as enticing in English as in French. A star was born. But… what next?
The answer, flippantly, would be ‘Chris’. But for Héloïse Letissier it was more than just a change of title. The relentless touring and punishing nightly dance moves had transformed her into a leaner being, and with her success came sexual conquests too, but not man or woman, more whichever took her fancy. Pansexuality, freedom and inspiration. Yet the sonic inspiration for Chris – ‘Christine’s androgynous, confident, male-world-view alter-ego – harks back to the 80s and 90s, where r’n’b was in a renaissance with Michael and Janet Jackson at the fore. You can almost hear the Jam and Lewis influence in tracks like Girlfriend and Doesn’t Matter. But it’s original, punchy hooks and oblique lyrical references that are all her own rather than borrowed from the past, as she explores pansexual conquests from the side of the male gaze.
The result is an album that feels it could only be made by a French artist, such is the ambition, and openly artistic musings that would be sniffed at in England. A staggeringly individual collection of songs where Letissier writes, performs and produces almost every single note, and that should fire her even higher into the pop firmament. Fantastique!