When asked to give his definition of dubstep in an interview last month, James Blake said, “There’s a very broad template, but it largely focuses on a bassline and the intricacies of drum patterns and it has an intense focus on a feeling— and I think that’s a separation from some other dance music.” Ostensibly, the feeling Blake is talking about is that of heady isolation— the shadowy sensation that Burial perfected with 2007’s Untrue and Blake successfully brought into the singer-songwriter realm with this year’s self-titled LP. As for the many dubstep artists who rely heavily on computers during gigs, Blake hates them: “To me, laptops have got no place on a stage,” he told Pitchfork in March. And when he covers quintessential songwriters like Feist (on his album) or Joni Mitchell (on this EP), he’s not trying to render them obsolete as much as join them within the canon of authentic artistes. For all of the futurist conversation surrounding him, James Blake is a bit old-fashioned.
When he took on Feist’s “Limit to Your Love”, he infused it with water-rippling sub-bass and epic pauses while retaining its original emotionality. In that way, it was the perfect cover— he made the track his own while keeping all the key elements of the original. Enough Thunder’s remake of Mitchell’s 1971 ode “A Case of You”, recorded live at the BBC, is different. Blake switches Mitchell’s guitar for piano, and leaves it at that. There’s no bass. No additional production. Unlike his “Limit to Your Love”, which expanded and beautifully distorted the notion of a “singer-songwriter,” the “A Case of You” cover contracts the term, revealing Blake’s limitations as an artist. Without any of his signature, modern embellishments, Blake’s take has the feel of a stiff recital, his vocal undulations ironically sounding less natural without those well-situated sonic accoutrements. The same can be said of the title track, an original piano-and-voice composition. Even though Blake has been slowly unveiling his singing voice over the last two years, these plain and flat tracks sound surprising. Perhaps they shouldn’t. In an interview from April of last year, he said, “Although I’m making this heavy dance music, I sometimes just sit down at the piano and just sing. It’s like that’s my ultimate calling.”
Enough Thunder’s remaining four songs are also decidedly low-key, though vastly more engaging. These are dubstep ballads reminiscent of his 2010 EP Klavierwerke, except with his vocals brought to the front of the mix. As with many of Blake’s best songs, they’re simple, minimal, glacial. And even though it’s pretty damn hard to understand a word he’s saying, that melancholy core is present. It’s conveyed through the elongated guitar feedback and pulsing submarine call of “Once We All Agree”, or the sound of a record skipping (or is it a hard drive clicking?) that forms the subtle foundation of “We Might Feel Unsound”, or the dolphin-like vocal whoops of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on the duo’s collaborative track “Fall Creek Boys Choir”, which is blessed (and kinda cursed) by sounding exactly like what you’d expect a Bon Iver/James Blake track to sound like. Only three-and-a-half minutes into the EP’s penultimate track, “Not Long Now”, do we get anything resembling a beat dropping. For those who adored Blake’s heavier, more rhythmic early material, Enough Thunder could easily turn into Not Enough Thunder.
But one of the great things about Blake is how he’s willing to make a statement: in his uncompromising music, in his candid and thoughtful interviews, or in his choice of titles. Enough Thunder could be self-reflexive since this is easily his quietest release thus far. But it could also indicate a sort of corrective to the abrasive and cartoonish strain of dubstep that has taken grip as of late, especially in America. To Blake, dubstep means something intimate and internal, but to the many fans of acts including Skrillex and Bassnectar— who use their wobbling bass like hair metal guitarists used solos— it means something exuberant and euphoric. And while Blake recognizes both feelings, he certainly prefers one over the other. Talking about the faster-louder-stronger evolution of the style, he recently said, “Those melodic basslines are insultingly simple and aggressive and annoying. That is now a valid genre, but it certainly isn’t dubstep. It’s turned into something else. That’s cool, I’m happy about it. I’m not like, ‘As soon as it became mainstream it became rubbish, or whatever.’ It’s just something different now.” It’s a refreshingly mature yet opinionated take from someone who turns 23 this month. Blake is fighting the respectable fight on Enough Thunder, though the EP’s totally bass-less tracks show that he needs dubstep as much as dubstep needs him.