“I’m always down for emo music,” a girl said to her friend as we stood with a few hundred tired, sweaty bodies waiting for James Blake to take the Gov Ball stage. The annual Governors Ball Music Festival attracts an interesting crowd, in that I’m not sure anybody actually likes music. Surely, attributing “emo music” to the downtempo electronic artist James Blake is classically incorrect. But the Gov Ball crowd — which seemed to consist largely of teenagers drinking for the first time and social media influencers taking pictures of their food — perhaps have a more colloquial definition of “emo music,” just like their definition of “liking music.”
James Blake often deals in sub-bass and breakup music, mourning lost love in falsetto as synth-rich rhythms build around him. Other times it’s just Blake and his piano, stressing the utter sadness and beauty behind his words. So if “emo” is purely shorthand for emotional, James Blake indeed makes “emo music.” In fact, just last week he made a statement about the “sad boy” label listeners often assign him. He was fed up after seeing people use the term to describe his latest single, the gorgeously devastating “Don’t Miss It.” “I’ve always found that expression to be unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings,” he wrote.
In a 2011 interview, Blake calls out “certain producers” who “have definitely hit upon a sort of frat-boy market” and practically compete over “who can make the dirtiest, filthiest bass sound, almost like a pissing competition.” Ironically, his Gov Ball audience seemed entirely game for some sloppy wub. They talked loudly over piano crooners and hung on every floor-shaking buzz. Luckily, Blake’s set accounted for plenty of buzz and EDM breaks, which were honestly sick. Blake sat next to a man on drums and a guitar player onstage; dramatic spotlights shone and flashed above them in accordance with the beat, growing more opaque as sonic textures thickened and fading as they softened. He opened with the stunning track “Life Round Here” from his sophomore album Overgrown. Blue lights warmed to orange as the song heated up with Blake’s freestyle embellishments.
Every so often Blake would signal for the person working sound to turn his mic up. Heavy bass isn’t the primary focus at a James Blake show, or at least he doesn’t want it to be. He makes sure his voice carries equal weight, if not more. Unlike your run-of-the-mill EDM show, the bass doesn’t demolish everything in its path. His voice soars above it. It looped to infinity and exploded on “Never Learnt To Share.” It swirled with glowing synth on “Retrograde.”
The already-small crowd thinned as the night went on. Blake was slated to go on at 9:15 and finish at 11:00, which is a pretty long set that didn’t necessarily feel justified given the time and place. Not to mention, he performed at the same time as Jack White. A voice shouted, “PLAY ‘KING’S DEAD'” during his minimal piano cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent,” and I kind of agreed. (For those unfamiliar, “King’s Dead” is posse cut club banger fronted by Kendrick Lamar, Future, and Jay Rock. James Blake is featured for about three seconds.) “I Need A Forest Fire,” a song which I usually enjoy, didn’t translate in an open field of antsy festivalgoers. Gorgeous piano arrangements were lost to Jack White’s pulsing “Seven Nation Army” riff a few hundred yards over. The mood picked up a bit when he debuted some unfamiliar new wavey synth-pop sounds but fell again when he closed with “Measurements” to almost nobody. Blake certainly puts on a show, just maybe not one fit for Gov Ball.