Sad music — real sad music, not, like, Ed Sheeran singing ballads — is a rare, powerful, through road into the listener’s psyche. Which is why it’s so common and mandatory: even the most bubblegum pop star has to have a bummer song (along with a dance song and a radio song). This sea of sad songs has existed in music since time immemorial, and so those that rise to the top of the field have to distinguish themselves by having heavier hearts and more interesting ways of conveying it.
I imagine that James Blake would take issue with being pigeonholed as a guy that makes sad music, as any artist would when their art is reduced. But I don’t mean to say that he’s only a very good melancholy composer. But he’s clearly a bold and interesting innovator of the field, and that’s what I think about most when I listen to The Colour in Anything.
There are two ways to work in this mode: through intimate, authentic and heart-heavy lyrics or sounds and tones that evoke the pain the songwriter is expressing. Blake works in both simultaneously but is most interesting working as a composer. For the human ear, there are certain chord shifts and instruments that read as “melancholy.” Composers for film scores know this and deploy it frequently.
To listen to James Blake is like listening to an alien’s idea of what sad sounds are. There are standard, conventional methods like the solo piano ballad on the soulful “f.o.r.e.v.e.r.,” sure. But there are also wild takes like “Put That Away and Talk To Me.” It’s disjointed and lacking in clear form, so that you can never build that verse-chorus expectation, and much of the sounds seem to be independent of each other. Except — they’ll click only at certain points, like the planets aligning, or a stopped clock getting it right. When Blake sings, “I won’t know pain anymore,” that slice of song sounds conventional and, therefore, perfect. But it slips back into disarray, as the percussive samples and electronic bells go their own way.
A lot of The Colour in Anything is like that. The songs are so antithetical to conventional sad music that you are left floating in an open ocean, except for when a spare, conventional melody comes floating by like driftwood. You can cling to it for a few moments, but it will inevitably sink into the water until the next one comes along.
“Love Me In Whatever Way,” for example, is an empty song with a barely-there, squishy beat and all the power on Blake’s great voice. The mind’s eye has trouble attaching to anything until three minutes in and a synth — at long last — gives an underlying, comprehensible and safe melody that seems to put the liquid, shapeless song into a container you can recognize. Of course, this comes so late in the song the satisfaction is fleeting. What could be sadder?
The Colour in Anything might be a little too long at 17 songs, resulting in a blurring of lines and songs that work both for and against the album. As a result, it’s not an album I put on because I really want to hear a particular single. It’s a mood, codified and packaged into 1 hour and 16 minutes of runtime. You put it on, at any point, and let it play out into eternity until you’re ready to come up.