There are some voices that levitate past their own categorical appeal. This is a fact that can’t be explained much better than that; some music defies logic, and it’s a point of luck that it does, it saves us from the eventual drilling down of all things into discrete units. James Blake’s voice cannot be drilled into, there is no center and there is no limit to his pain. His voice is a ghost, ghosting us as it unspools. Chopped and twisted such strange and sticky ways, it exists, but it cannot be contained. It isn’t real. It isn’t finite or physical, but it has weight beyond the spiritual realm. At times, it feels like a manifestation of the digital detritus accumulated by our online selves. His third album, The Colour In Anything, is a “surprise” as the digital selling cycle dictates these days–it came to us suddenly. It’s been spurred along by the king of disappearing himself, Frank Ocean; a man infamous for combining the pastoral and the electronic, Justin Vernon; and the most internet fluent producer of our time, Rick Rubin. This record is best understood as the meeting point of human pain inflicted by technology; it is formless but full of feeling, like a relationship that exists only in the jagged tenor of mediated affection.
Blake is the product of a generation who have grown up learning to love through screens and machines, or, perhaps he is the antidote for this practice, a salve in a time of text message question marks and unanswered emails. The careful overlap of his tender, vulnerable voice with uncanny fuzz and jittery beats draws flesh and the synthetic into juxtaposition. “Put That Away And Talk To Me,” he sings in heady autotune halfway through the record, sounding like a Luddite at 27–except he strays quickly from admonishing to admission of fantasy. In a twist, the fantasy is now of an encounter that isn’t limited by technology, a sentiment that isn’t too far away from his peer Drake’s “let’s do the things we say on texts” line on Views‘ “Faithful.” The known romantic world is contained in technology; reality has become the fantasy, the unfulfilled dream.
Blake’s opener, “Radio Silence” wedges us further into this liminal space of technological love and loss, the physical ache of a breakup is represented by the withholding of communication. It is silence that becomes equivalent to lack of presence, and for us fellow late twentysomethings, that’s how this type of pain erupts in our landscape; it is felt as a digital loss as much as a physical one. Our online selves miss the digital other as much as we miss their physical being. “It’s sad that you’re no longer her,” he chants on “Points” blurring “longer” and “her” together until the role sounds less like a person and more like a voice or personality that could be swapped in to fit the role a la Her. It’s not here that she has left, it’s “her”–the role, the space, the occupation.
“Love Me In Whatever Way” builds out this formless idea of affection, as an eerily submerged laugh track meets with a Donny Hathaway sample of “Giving Up” to anchor Blake’s robotic plea that, in some form or another, this love will survive. He offers silence, or a gradual quieting, as a sacrifice to preserve the love. Perhaps it is too much sound that makes some loves hard to bear, they become too loud to be sustainable. The physical noise of love presses it out of existence, until it is just us and the silent radio. Before, the silence was whole, complete. Now, it is fractured by the loss of the other. This is not a physical loss, it hurts in a new way. We don’t have a word for digital loss yet, we’re still trying to process. A world drained of color seems like an apt analogy, though.
“I hear the sound of all the lies / Turn off and on, oh,” Blake sings on “Noise Above Our Heads.” There are desires and fears embedded here, too: noises in the night, restless sleep, space to be together, a yearning for physical presence, someone to sleep next to in order to erase the erratic digital dissonance that has become all encompassing. “I deserve someone bad and someone like me,” he sings. “I hear the sound of all the lies.” We are not machines, we fuck up. It’s those mistakes that separate us from machines, but it’s also those mistakes that drive us further away from each other–our own flawed messy humanity. So Blake, ghostly, sings our pain in failure. He gives it digital form, but it still doesn’t exist. It’s all white noise. It has no color. It isn’t real.
A ghost is one way of preserving what once existed, but it’s stuck in time. There is no going back to the beginning, and there is no more room for growth. Blake sings to us of this in-between existence; his voice gives us a language accessible enough to name and tell our digital pain. The Colour In Anything is digital soul, dark music about a fleshless wound we open further every time we dig back through our digital past, our digital heartbreak. “I can’t always help you,” he sings on the title track, “But I can listen for the sounds you’re making.” We call it “ghosting” when a romantic partner issues forth a digital silence without warning, without statement. But even ghosts can’t stop us from listening. Blake’s third album is the soundtrack for a silent world drained of color, use it for your grey days.