December 18, 2019
James Blake played Brooklyn Academy of Music
After releasing his fourth record, Assume Form, earlier this year, James Blake is rounding out 2019 with intimate shows featuring only himself and a piano.
It feels rather fitting for my final full show of the decade to be James Blake. Ten years earlier, Blake was billed as one of the next big things and over the course of four albums and a handful of singles and EPs, it seems that he somehow lived up to the hype. In 2010, however, he was a mysterious voice that seemed more like a ghost in a computer rather than an elegant, soulful singer full of emotionally devastating ballads. "CMYK" was an early underground hit that catapulted his name into the blogosphere only to find him unleash a stunning debut that did indeed focus more on his voice than his ability to craft twitching beats. Nearly a decade later, he's collaborated with some of the biggest names in pop music and seen his own name rise to the top of festival posters around the world. Walking onstage at BAM, however, felt more like a return to his original form than anything we've seen in years. "Most of my songs start here, on a piano" he told the audience early in the night, so hearing these versions felt like seeing an artist's sketch before adding brilliant colors to their artwork. These songs were bare and not full of the life and grandeur we've come to expect from Blake's work and while that made the setlist perhaps somewhat disappointing since he couldn't capture a lot of his own magic, it did, however, make it truly special. He admitted to being quite nervous before the shows as they were much more out of his element than anything he's done as of late, but the audience was there to support him and linger on every word. "I'll Come Too" and "Retrograde" were two standouts that really saw the crowd swoon, but each song really did feel special. "This is one of my favorite songs and I was lucky to help write it. Unfortunately, Frank doesn't really play live so I only get to hear it when I sing it." As he progressed into Frank Ocean's "Godspeed," his voice sounded so pure that it became clear that nothing would top this single moment for the rest of the night. So smooth and perfect, his voice trembled ever so slightly giving it life and a true sense of honesty. Later on, as he would solo around the piano between songs, he managed to weave in a cover of Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and committed to it much harder and longer than expected, causing erupting laughter from the crowd with each continued verse. Even through the laughs, he made a plethora of jokes throughout the night as well, the intimacy and vulnerability of the show reached staggering heights that made up for the lack of "hits" many had come hoping to hear. He closed his main set with another cover, this time Don McLean's "Vincent" which he also described as one of his favorite songs of all time, painting such descriptive paintings through the lyrics, his most bold and striking annunciation of the night, making the words cut with an extra intensity. To bring the night to a final end, he relied on his steady classic, and yet another cover, "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell which brought the house down and made for an impeccable final moment. One of the most promising and rising sensations from the past decade, Blake capped off the last ten years with a show bringing it all back to the basics, showcasing an incredible accomplishment and proving he was worth the hype.