James Blake continues his uber-productive 2020 as last week he released his second EP, Covers, of the year. (In addition to Before EP, he has also put out three singles including a collaboration with slowthai and Mount Kimbie.)
Blake has never been anxious about covering adored singles, with his version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” making it to the deluxe edition of his self-titled debut in 2011. The genesis of this particular release, however, can be found in a series of Instagram Live sessions, which began as lockdown did in March, where he would take requests to do covers of tracks such as “Come as You Are” by Nirvana and “No Surprises” by Radiohead.
The stripped-down quality of the Instagram concert can be detected in this EP as he abandons the more dazzling, electronic, post-dubstep elements of his usual production, favouring instead the more minimalist combination of mostly just piano keys and vocal cords.
The first song to be covered is Billie Eilish’s “when the party’s over”, the original version of which wouldn’t sound out of place on Blake’s debut LP with the autotuned humming playing in the background to a staggered lyrical build-up. If he were in another mood, I can imagine Blake noticing its congruence with his first album’s style and producing a cover bathed in frenetic electronica like his own “I Never Learnt to Share”, but given his more sombre attitude, he has adapted it to a melancholic and restrained rendition.
Next, Blake offers us his take on Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, which is carried by a muffled metronome (the only major departure from the piano-voice duopoly throughout the EP) as he reinvents the intensity provided by the original. Blake’s decorative use of piano arpeggios hang like shimmering stalactites from his austere, echoey and trembling urges to not “walk away in silence”.
Blake’s treatment of Stevie Wonder’s ballad “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” perfectly emulates the energetic instrumental climax in the final third of the song. In contrast to the buzz of Wonder, his rendition of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed” is notable for its drawn-out silences. Blake is able to tenderly navigate the pensive pauses in part because he played a key role in producing and arranging the Blonde original, so is already familiar with its construction. Moreover, Blake is adept at using silence to his advantage throughout his discography, as his friend and collaborator, Brain Eno, has previously commended the “skeletal” ambience of his music.
The penultimate track is “When We’re Older” (adapted from “Otherside” by Beyoncé), which is composed largely of melodic humming over mellifluous piano-playing. The EP ends with a heart-wrenching edition of Roberta Flack’s own beautiful cover “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. Blake displays the superlative control he has over his voice when effecting the quivering fragility that made Flack’s so moving. Although I find Flack’s version more sensual due the soft, ethereal bass and harp-like guitar-plucking, Blake concludes the EP with a wonderful exposition of his penchant for achingly gentle ballads, despite arguably finding popularity with his more hip-hop-infused collaborations.