What is soul? It's a difficult question to answer—especially with regard to music. One person's soul is another's hollow bombast, unbearable bellowing, or heinous whining (Hot Topic emo bands, I'm glaring at you). Now throw race into the discussion, and you can find yourself mired in yet more aesthetic hand-wringing and tortuous reasoning.
Obviously, anyone with ears and eyes realizes that what we call "soul music" has been dominated by African Americans. Listen to vocalists like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Al Green, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, et al., and you come away convinced that raw emotion can be transformed into spiritual art—gospel undertones or no. Soul is a feeling that typically bypasses intellectualizing; at its best, it causes a miraculous metamorphosis of pain and strife into joy and triumph through the sheer timbre of vocal cords. Words aren't even necessary to communicate soulfulness; a melismatic wail, a lascivious grunt, or a doleful coo can convey just as much impact as beautiful, heart-wrenching lyricism.
By contrast, the white soul singer is a rarity almost on the order of a Caucasian NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner. But there have been some incredible melanin-deficient vocalists over the last 40-plus years of popular music: Tony Joe White, Dusty Springfield, Steve Marriott, Terry Reid, Dr. John, Judy Henske, Janis Joplin, Rare Earth's Peter Rivera, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, Amy Winehouse, Robert Wyatt, Green Gartside, Mayer Hawthorne, and Seattle's own Shawn Smith. One of the most interesting new white soul artists is 22-year-old English producer James Blake.
Besides his race and nationality, Blake is a special case in the soul-music genre: He came up through the UK dubstep scene, which is not known for its vocalists. In his early vinyl releases for labels such as R&S and Hessle Audio, Blake didn't emphasize his formidable pipes, but instead used them as peripheral embellishments to his productions. He also eschewed dubstep's more extreme aural traits—bludgeoning beats, Richter-scale bass wobble, pitch-shifted video-game tones. Instead, he favored subtle frequency modulations; moving, minor-key melodies; and smoldering moods.
However, for his self-titled 2011 debut full-length, Blake changed tack in a move reminiscent of another adventurous British electronic musician who possesses amazingly soulful vocal capacity: Jamie Lidell. James Blake is essentially a soul-ballad album, with Blake's intimate vocals to the fore over smudged, post-dubstep machinations. (That the massive American major label Universal Republic released the album just adds another layer of oddness to the James Blake persona.) There are several people in the music industry who apparently think Blake has star potential. They may be right, but he's hardly an easy sell.
The 11 tracks on James Blake sound a lot like Arthur Russell and Antony Hegarty—two more arty whiteys with soul to burn (or, chill, rather)—crooning over late-era Talk Talk outtakes. This is sensitive-individual, introverted, bedroom music. On the surface, it doesn't seem very communal, which makes the quick sellout of Blake's Tractor gig surprising—as surprising as the venue itself for this Decibel-sponsored show.
Blake keeps things fairly sparse throughout the album, which allows his verge-of-tears, sotto voce delivery to work its magic without breaking a (cold) sweat. His soul is not the shouting-to-the-heavens kind, nor is it geared for rowdy party-ignition; instead, it's about conveying consternation over relationships, expressing existential doubt, or exuding emotional frailty. The track most likely to break Blake to the masses, "The Wilhelm Scream," captures his gripping tentativeness and alluring understatement. Soft kick drums and rim shots keep erratic time below gently swelling keyboards as Blake intones with poignant resignation, "I don't know about my dreams anymore/All that I know is/I'm falling, falling, falling, falling." It could very well be his "Wicked Game."
James Blake peaks on "Limit to Your Love," a Feist cover. Over stark, moment-of-truth piano chords and unfathomably deep bass fibrillations that sound like a heart that's about to explode from tension, Blake sings in his most tremulous manner, "There's a limit to your love/Like a waterfall in slow motion/Like a map with no ocean." These poetic lines signify Blake's pathos-laden, confined world, his tightly wound soul. White on for the darkness.