Do something for me. Watch the video below. You’ll be glad you did. It’s Bill Withers, onstage in a stadium in Zaire in 1974. He’s up there by himself, showing no sign that he even notices the thousands upon thousands of people watching him. He’s on a stool, picking out a little three-note melody on an acoustic guitar and singing “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” one of the songs from Just As I Am, his debut album. He’s already 36, but he’s new to this R&B-stardom thing. Up until three years earlier, he’d been a factory worker, and before that, a sailor in the Navy. So by the time he got around to releasing that first album, he sounded like a man, like someone who’d been through some things. “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a grown-up song, a song about acceptance and desolation, about realizing you were a chapter in someone else’s life and that chapter is over. “I can’t believe that she don’t wanna see me,” he sings. “We lived and loved with each other so long.” On “me” and “long,” he stretches the words out until they’re wounded-foghorn sounds. It’s one of my favorite performances ever. (It’s in the documentary Soul Power. Go watch that.)
James Blake opens The Colour In Anything, his new album, with those same two lines, taken from Withers’ song. It sounds different coming from Blake, of course — a beautiful, young white Englishman with this frozen, clean tenor. Instead of that one spare guitar, he’s got this beautifully arranged minimal ice-sculpture of a beat. His own voice drops in and out, sometimes massing into a platoon of James Blakes, sometimes flitting around in the corners of the track. It would be ridiculous to say that Blake’s reading of those Withers lines is as good as Withers’ version; nothing is as good as Withers’ version. And yet Blake, through his own process, manages to evoke a similar sense of deep, crushing isolation. Just like Withers, he lets go of any idea of conventional song-structure, letting the lines bubble up whenever it feels right. And like Withers, Blake is making an inward, personal form of soul music — albeit one that, in Blake’s case, sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a vast digital canyon. It comes from a universe entirely different from the one that once produced Withers, and yet it arrives at the same place, emotionally.
The idea that I am leading with a Bill Withers video — that Bill Withers video — in a James Blake review is not the kind of thing I could’ve anticipated. When a fresh-faced Blake arrived on the scene a few years ago, he was making futzy, abstract post-dubstep music, and I could not understand it at all. Certain wings of the music-criticism establishment were losing their shit over this kid, and I would throw on one of those EPs and immediately get a headache. In retrospect, Blake’s transition from labored-blorp productions to soul-futurist singer-songwriterdom was fairly gradual, starting with his Feist cover and leading into 2013’s fantastic sophomore album Overgrown. But it took me forever to recognize it. Those early EPs had left such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to hear “Retrograde” and “Life Round Here” soundtrack a few dozen TV montages before I could hear it as the tranquil, assured space-age make-out music that it was. But Overgrown turned out to be a precedent-setting modern classic, rearranging the sound of pop music to the point where Blake, against all odds, came to replace Coldplay’s Chris Martin as every rapper’s favorite doofy English singer. And on The Colour In Anything, Blake takes everything Overgrown did and he does it better.
We’re all still in first-impression territory right now, but The Colour In Anything is just a staggeringly, maddeningly pretty piece of work. Blake’s sense of control, his instinct for when to build a track and when to let silence do the talking, is on another level right now. The album moves between electronic reveries and stripped-back piano-and-voice ballads, and they all sound completely cohesive. They all touch the same parts of your soul. There’s a stillness in everything Blake does, and he knows how to deploy that marvel of a voice in ways that absolutely change the atmosphere of a room. And that voice has just gotten better, or maybe Blake has become more confident in the ways he uses it. He spends long stretches of Colour in a newfound upper-register; on the soft piano-based songs like “Forever,” there are parts where he’s on some Kate Bush shit. He plays around with all these different sounds and approaches throughout the album, but he never stops radiating crystalline beauty everywhere. It’s really something.
Blake has talked about how he wanted to make this a defiant, collaboration-driven record, and it sucks, at least a little bit, that he didn’t accomplish his goal of getting Kanye West to rap on “Timeless.” But this turns out to be mostly a solo affair, with Blake picking his collaborators very carefully. Justin Vernon, Blake’s peer in heart-melting white-boy falsetto, shows up for a couple of his duets, and it’s breathtaking to hear the two of them wrap their voices around each other. Rick Rubin co-produced much of the record, and it’s fun to think about these two minimalists taking turns removing things from tracks, making sure there’s as little information and as much insinuation as possible. And the reclusive Frank Ocean, probably the closest thing to a Bill Withers that we have right now, gets a couple of co-writer credits, though it seems like he was more a spirit animal than a full-on collaborator for Blake. Ocean’s senses of hushed intimacy and wonder are everywhere on Colour, even if his actual voice never shows up. Blake had that in his music already, but maybe it took Ocean’s example for him to push it that much harder.
The Colour In Anything is a long album, at 17 tracks and 75 minutes. Just last week, I got annoyed when Drake pulled a feat of similar expansiveness. But Drake albums are about personality-projection, and Drake’s personality gets oppressive when you listen to it for that long. Blake, even at his most generous, never lets that much personality come through in his music. His lyrics are allusive pieces of word-association that, unless they hit you the exact right way at the exact right moment, tend not to mean much. He’s talked about how he had to get over his own social anxieties to make an album like this one, but I don’t hear that in the music. I don’t hear a personal journey here, and that’s fine. Instead, I hear a mood, masterfully sustained for an hour and a quarter. Every blip, hum, and ripple is ingeniously designed to keep us all on the right wavelength. And as a piece of extended mood music, Colour succeeds wildly, to the point where it already sounds like one of the year’s best albums. It’s an album that feels too stupidly, overwhelmingly beautiful to be real. I hope Bill Withers hears it. I think he’ll like it.
The Colour In Anything is out now on Polydor. Stream it below.