Meditative singer-songwriter and post-dubstep poster boy James Blake rounds off the year with a stripped-down EP of covers of classic songs, some of which were debuted during his Lockdown request sessions.
James Blake has kept himself busy during this tumultuous year by taking requests from fans for cover versions of other artists’ material and performing them on social media; the form’s immediacy has strengthened the bond with his audience as well as expose his tremulous pipes and plangent keyboard playing to a wider demographic. His airy take on Frank Ocean’s brooding Godspeed summoned more than five million views on TikTok alone.
The Covers project is his festive treat for a testing 2020, though its prevalent mood is far from jubilant, consisting of delicate, mournful and piano-based treatments of other people’s music including fan favourites Godspeed by Frank Ocean and Billie Eilish’s When The Party’s Over (originally unleashed in 2019 during his solo piano-and-vocal tour). Covers arrives after his October EP, Before, and a collaboration with Slowthai and Mount Kimbie on the British rapper’s Feel Away.
On the Eilish song, the London-born troubadour decorates her acutely personal lyrics with a quivering whisper and supplements of limpid, persuasive piano. His icy rendition of the Joy Division classic, Atmosphere, is restrained and solemn, his sumptuous voice bubbling amidst a minimal, pin-drop electronic bedrock and glacial splashes and sweeps of piano arpeggios.
Stevie Wonder’s beautiful ballad, Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer, receives a more reverent makeover, as the singer teases out the soulful despondency of the original with stately piano chords; his stark and lovestruck vocals suit the song’s vertiginous build and elegiac melancholy. Ocean’s Godspeed, a track which Blake produced and arranged for the former’s 2016 opus, Blonde, is an obvious highlight of the EP, as is Beyonce’s When We’re Older, here wrapped in a churchy, magic-hour atmosphere and displaying the boy wonder’s facility for haunting classical chords and forlorn, grave chops. Blake shines on his gorgeous reading of Ewan MacColl’s standard, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. He moves through the song at a similar, funereal pace to that of Roberta Flack’s prized version whilst imbuing the hoary tale with his own wistful grandeur: he sounds completely exposed.
Blake’s early music seemed to emanate from a deconstructive, granular and abstraction impulse, as he sliced, internalised and, yes, shoegazed, the imprint of r’n’b as an ethereal, introverted re-interpretation, rather like Dilla did with hip-hop. Covers applies a similar MO, serving us music as unvarnished catharsis, proffering healing and sultry sounds aimed purely for the heart.