Like the rest of us, James Blake has been missing nights out during our continued quarantined existence. The superglue stickiness of grimy dancefloors, pints that cost almost as much as you paid to get in, that one paralytic stranger who’s latched themselves onto your group? He’s pining for all that too, it seems.
That is the impression the DJ, producer and Grammy-winning musician’s surprise new EP ‘Before’ gives off, at least. He’s described it as “a yearning for dancefloor elation” and, while his 2019 album ‘Assume Form’ did contain some beat-backed cuts, it’s a return to the dark corners of the club after a record of piano-heavy prettiness.
Fittingly for this release’s title, these songs are reminiscent of Blake’s earliest work – the R&S-released, nightbus-soundtracking likes of ‘CMYK’ – with one difference. This time, it’s recognisably his voice being chopped and screwed between the shuffling layers – something he says he finally has the confidence to do. It’s still filtered through effects in places, but they feel more like artistic flourishes than a mask to hide behind. When, on ‘Summer Of Now’, his vocals start trembling and stuttering brightly, it adds a new texture to a minimal track.
‘Before’ doesn’t eschew an important part of the now LA-based artist’s recent work though, Like ‘Assume Form’, it delves info romance and personal struggles, completely open and honest in its sentiments. On the rushing ‘I Keep Calling’ – a club track that interpolates Charlotte Day Wilson’s ‘Falling Apart’ and perfectly encapsulates that elation Blake has been longing for – he’s head-over-heels. “I keep calling your heart/Oh, let it ring if I’m falling too hard,” he sings softly, before the pace picks up with garage rhythms of swathes of lush synths.
The gentle thud of ‘Do You Ever’ finds him less certain about things. “Do you ever think about me?” he questions over snapping beats and mists of shrill electronics. “Really, if you’re honest with me.” Where ‘I Keep Calling’ feels like the buzz of being around your crush, here are the hours spent fretting over whether the feeling is mutual. ‘Before’, meanwhile, is the opposite again – coming from a place of security, strings and fizzing synths colliding on an ode to a relationship becoming “family”.
That track also finds Blake reflecting on himself, suggesting he “must be in pain cos I’ve never needed anyone before”. It’s not all bad, though – as he says himself, “nothing’s in vain cos I’ve never had it as good before”. The EP’s final track is similarly contemplative, tracking his growth and change. “We’re both so different now,” he muses, taking tranquil flight on widescreen, crisp melodies and delicate beats.
In another world, the ‘Before’ EP would be the soundtrack to nights spent in dark venues and dawn journeys home under the harsh glow of bus lights. Until we get back there, it’s a great reminder of glory days that will find us again one day.