Given James Blake’s obvious abilities as a singer, it bears remembering that less than a decade ago, his decision to put his own aching baritone at the center of his self-titled first album was a daring move, even a little controversial. Blake’s fragmentary early releases—particularly CMYK and Klavierwerke, a pair of EPs released via R&S Records in 2010—made him into one of the most talked-about young names in dance music at the time. These records featured plenty of singing, but the voices were always obscured behind noise, or sliced and foreshortened, like reflections glimpsed in a shard of broken mirror. More often than not, the singer on a given track wasn’t even Blake himself, but a spectral sampled version of Aaliyah, or Kelis, or Keri Hilson, brought to the mic for a single resonant phrase and then whisked away.
Blake’s emergence as a glitched-out torch song auteur over the three full-lengths that followed has been a revelation. As his voice has matured, his compositions have become more conventionally accessible: no less powerful, but more likely to knock you out with a gorgeous topline melody than with a sound you’ve never heard before. “If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead,” a single released with a video last night, does both.
Though essentially songlike in structure, with verses and a recognizable chorus, “If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead” is alien on a moment-by-moment level. Blake thoroughly mangles his own voice, zeroing in on breaths between words and repeating them like drum samples, looping entire phrases with no apparent concern for keeping a tidy rhythmic grid. After the appearance of these sorts of incomprehensible vocal chops in the Top 40 lexicon, on songs like the anodyne Kiiara hit “Gold,” it is a welcome reminder that this technique still has the capacity to produce genuine beauty and strangeness.
There’s a high-pitched sound in the verses of “If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead” that feels like a throwback to similarly teapot-esque timbres on CMYK’s “I’ll Stay” and “Footnotes,” and the track is adventurous in a way that recalls those first few Blake EPs and singles. But it’s more than a retread of his early work. He’s in top form as a songwriter too, finding a blend of pop and experimentation that he’s never quite achieved before, pushing himself forward musically without losing the emotional heft of his recent albums.
The song’s title provides one of its only clearly audible lyrics, rhymed with “As much as it feels as though you’re dead” in a chorus that pairs the despairing ambiguity of that couplet with stuttering melodic uplift. For much of the rest of the song, Blake is like a car radio flipping through stations, speaking only in ghostly hiccups and sighs. Some feelings are better expressed without words.