James Blake — “Retrograde”

It’s bottomless, the end of the world. You’re falling, you’re being swallowed up, you’re disintegrating, the universe expands, everything recedes to a singularity. That’s certainly the vision of Lars von Trier in Melancholia, and of Yannis Philippakis in “Moon”.

That’s not what James Blake‘s “Retrograde” is about—though the music video stylishly depicts an asteroid devastating a creepy country house—but that’s certainly what the song sounds like. Those keening, careening synths in the chorus, grating against each other like enraged celestial bodies. The forlorn piano-work, filtered through a decaying, ruined air. And the bass, monotonic, rumbling and tumbling around the lowest end of the audible spectrum when it occasionally chooses to intrude upon the song.

“Ignore everybody else—we’re alone now,” Blake urges his lover, but he’s chased by his own ghostly echo. Then, in the chorus, he has a revelation: “Suddenly I’m hit / Is this darkness or the dawn?” But all around him everything is exploding; the musical fireworks speak of an inner turmoil.

On Blake’s debut LP, there were undoubted weak spots, principally when he settled back on his piano stool, diverted his voice away from the laptop, and came off sounding too meek, too plaintive. “Retrograde” promises a lot: the piano’s there, but it’s smouldering; the vocals are unmeddled-with, but imbued with a lustful sleaze. The song hangs on a wordless, soulful vocal hook, which spirals into an effortless grace, but “Retrograde” won’t settle for mere prettiness and artifice. It’s uncomfortable in its own skin, threatening to run away but never actually doing so—like the title of the album it comes from, it’s overgrown. But distinctly not overwrought.

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