The Colour in Anything, British musician James Blake’s most recent release, is anything but an easy listen. But it’s ultimately rewarding, after a few more tries – you’ll find Blake’s melancholic croon ingrained on your mind, punctuated by cool, perfectly timed drum hits. Blake doesn’t really work with tracks easy to sing along to; rather, the songs are presented as individual, washing over and leaving you feeling strangely warm and chilly, dazed and comforted. My preferred context for listening to Blake is tired in bed, sheets a mess, or sitting quietly and thinking. Whatever the case, know that it’ll be hard to focus on anything else. If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, it might be from listening to Colour 10 times through the past few days. It has that effect.
“Radio Silence” begins with a feathery, almost choral vocal prelude, accompanied by minimal chords on the piano. A few seconds in, Blake’s percussive timekeeping snaps a frame on the song and his soothing vocals build into his first lyric, balanced out by low synth hums that continue throughout. “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me/ I don’t know how you feel,” Blake sings in refrains through “Radio Silence.” The lyrics are bare and simple, and Blake succeeds most in his distant, detached repetition – we can only imagine the emptiness Blake comes from to sing them.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact sounds and voices Blake borrows from in Colour. The tracks still push forth Blake’s stark and velvety voice, but unlike his last two albums, eclectic electronic beats, sub-bass thumps and auto-tune distortions find their way into this album. The production is incredibly detailed, with sometime abrasive piercing synths (as in “Timeless”) that make the track hard to get through. I started out with this warning – you’ll want to take your headphones off but won’t, because Blake always leaves you wondering what the next phrase brings.
Colour is intimately and interestingly different – no surprise that hip-hop and every genre producer Rick Rubin, as well as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and alternative R&B godsend Frank Ocean contribute. The album finds Blake troubled with self-doubt, singing about lost love and defeat. Subject cliché, maybe, but execution definitely not. “Points” starts, “I’ve done so much since/ Who better to show it to you” and gives way to a droning bassline, Blake continuing, “It’s sad that you’re no longer her,” and affectedly repeating “no longer her” throughout the track. It’s numbed emotion, stripped down and removed of exaggeration of feeling.
“I Need a Forest Fire” lets the ethereal quality of Bon Iver’s sound seep through; the track starts not with a gentle guitar refrain, but with a James Blake equivalent, which is to say a high-pitched synth effect that I’m finding hard to put into words. Vernon’s delicate but full-bodied falsetto pairs well with Blake; “I request another dream/ I need a forest fire,” Vernon sings. The back and forth is almost seamless, as Blake follows, “I hope you’ll stop me before I build a wall around me/ We need a forest fire,” lamenting over a circular bass flow punched by snare beats about a needed slash-and-burn equivalent for his relationship.
The tracks on Colour dig deep, slow-moving and slightly exhausting. If you’re listening to Blake this closely, you’ll need to hit pause every few verses. Colour is so nuanced and emotionally hard-hitting, so – sad, really, is the only word – it doesn’t slip past with one listen. Hit play, then pause, then rewind, then rewind again, then start over. I’m not telling you to do that – Colour calls for it.