On ‘Before,’ James Blake Aims to Lift Fans Out of the Pandemic Doldrums

If James Blake’s early singles pulsed with the restless energy of an artist searching for a place to confidently land between the stutter-step rhythms of UK grime and 2-step, the singer-songwriter-producer’s latest offering “Before” feels a bit lost. Blake’s long-players have consistently found intimate, comfortable grooves where his yearning, singular voice could explore the ups and downs of love, loss and life, offering uptempo tracks as a reprieve or escape from that poignant navel-gazing. His “Before” EP tries to do both at the same time, in the process creating music that makes you want to gather quietly in a corner of the dancefloor rather than jump and writhe in the kind of desperate, joyful release that Blake (and let’s be honest, his fans) desperately need in the age of Covid.

Listening to the opening track, “I Keep Calling,” in the context of early singles like “CMYK,” it’s hard to know if Blake has grown more confident, more self-indulgent, or simply more overwhelmed by the influence of so much other music from artists that sounds like his own. Fans of Frank Ocean and Solange — and not just of the tracks Blake did with them — will find kindred content in his effort here, straddling noddable grooves and the kind of idiosyncratic details (small echoes and looped samples) that are often easier to admire than enjoy. Remaking Charlotte Day Wilson’s sublime “Falling Apart” in his own image, with the help of original producer Erick the Architect, Blake marches unhurried towards the throb of a banger better designed for the space between a pair of headphones than the creaking floor of a discotheque, shifting tempos without the mounting effect of either a musical or emotional climax. Blake the songwriter’s inclination toward nuance serves Blake the producer poorly here — at least if the goal is to get feet shuffling — showcasing both his gifts and shortcomings as an artist.

Vocally, Blake is a forlorn woodwind — an oboe or clarinet — and what true capital-D dance music needs is joyful brass. His music communicates subtle grandeur, but rarely joyful abandon. It’s introspective and atmospheric. Possibly it’s because there aren’t clubs open to fill, but tracks like aforementioned “I Keep Calling” feel better suited for dance sessions at home, building and ebbing without the steady pacing (much less booming payoffs) of true roof raisers. Then again, maybe that’s exactly the kind of dancing that Blake wants to induce. His music video for “Before” features a montage of his favorite dancers reacting to his song in their own personal space, and individually and collectively they tap into the song’s transcendent, expressive beauty, but it’s an interpretive piece rather than the irresistible explosion of not being able to sit still when hearing something.

There’s also the problem that it all feels like “pandemic music,” at a time when most listeners aren’t ready to reflect on a painful and isolating time period they’re not even through, if they ever will be. From “Summer of Now,” lyrics like, “I’m not the summer of 2015 / But I can be the summer of now,” sound much less hopeful or optimistic than presumably intended when he sings it, especially sped up to a plaintive, chipmunk-like trill. Meanwhile, “Do You Ever” perfectly captures the feeling we’ve all been going through — relitigating past relationships with lyrics like, “do you ever think about me?,” wondering about worlds passing us by — as the quiet clang of a chugging four-four beat adds half-hearted pep.

Ultimately, what made Blake’s music consistently resonant in the past is what may be keeping this particular effort from achieving its intended purpose: because he is so skilled at evoking an intensely specific sensation — the process of thinking about feeling — he fails to tap directly into the feelings themselves. What that means in terms of “Before” is that even at just over 16 minutes, the four tracks quickly deepen in complexity and enjoyment over multiple listens, allowing fans to appreciate the detail and care that went into a release that might otherwise feel like a stopgap between major efforts. But as a “dance” album or just a morsel of new material from a beloved artist, “Before” inadvertently offers a better metaphor for our collective experiences during the pandemic than any kind of escape or release from isolation — reaching towards hope, joy, and even relief without being quite sure how, and still not feeling comfortable even when we momentarily find it.  

Before” releases Oct. 14 on Apple Music.