James Blake’s “Before” Brings You to an Intimate Dance Floor


James Blake’s experimental urge on his new EP goes beyond his last album. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Alexandra Lange, Staff Writer

You’re in the middle of a club surrounded by strangers, yet you feel a strange sense of belonging as you all move along to a pulsing drum. Your thoughts drift away into the smoke-filled air, and you feel as if your body is becoming one with the massive crowd of people around you. The flickering neon lights make you feel as if you’ve transcended to another realm an infinite one where no one’s stopping you from being yourself.

But all of a sudden, that overwhelming feeling is no longer a euphoric one. You come crashing back down to reality and are suddenly aware of the superglue stickiness of the dancefloor and the sweaty bodies around you. It’s almost like you’ve been dunked underwater, drowning in the thoughts that you thought had vanished into the foggy sky. You only got a taste of the euphoria, yet now that you know that it’s there, you can’t stop longing for it. 

That’s the journey James Blake’s latest EP “Before” takes listeners on. The dance floor is where Blake feels most comfortable, not only as a DJ but also as a restless man struggling with the highs and lows of love. The exhilaration he feels on the dance floor masks his inner turmoil and momentarily eases his fear of rejection and loneliness. Yet the high of the dance floor can only last so long. At some point, Blake can no longer use the club as an escape from his demons, and he has to reflect on the man behind the euphoric dance floor beats.

This is exactly what Blake does on “Before.” Lurking beneath the EP’s upbeat electronica beats are contemplative lyrics exposing the contradictions of Blake’s psyche. Putting his own vocals at the forefront more so than ever before, the contrast between Blake’s dance floor rhythms and his lyrical storytelling tells a complex story in just four short songs. 

Blake begins with the hypnotic “I Keep Calling.” Sampling Charlotte Day Wilson’s 2018 track “Falling Apart,” “I Keep Calling” perfectly captures the rushing feeling of love Blake has been longing for. He softly sings “I keep calling your heart / Oh, let it ring if I’m falling too hard,” before the pace picks up with a swath of lush synths, deep bass and quick vocal cuts.

Title track “Before” finds Blake reflecting on his own emotional parameters and grappling with the idea of being in love. His realization that he “must be in pain because [he’s] never needed anyone before” leads him to conclude that he can no longer exist in a state of singularity, as his current relationship has gotten him accustomed to being a part of a whole. Yet he struggles with this idea, as he tries to push back against the all-too-prevalent bounds of toxic masculinity that put a stigma around men expressing emotion and finding strength in something or someone other than themselves.

Blake ultimately finds himself comfortable existing outside the facade of toxic masculinity on “Before,” both figuratively and literally. The song’s slow build-up and standard beat drop are representative of society’s construction of a “man” pushed into the normative role of masculinity; yet out of nowhere, Blake subverts dominant musical standards and figuratively subverts the standard of masculinity with his pillowy falsetto and the sudden rush of overlapping lines of low-pitched strings, electronic beeps and fizzing synths. His ability to convey such complexities under the guise of dance music is a testament to Blake’s genius and is a rare gift to find in artists of the modern age.

While Blake is secure in himself and his relationship on “Before,” he finds himself coming down from the mind-freeing high of the dance floor on the EP’s third track “Do You Ever.” Reminiscent of a late-night conversation or a drunk text, Blake confesses his ex is still on his mind, wondering, “Do you ever think about me?” The interplay between the track’s distorted vocal quivers and its range of disjointed synths adds to the conversational vibe, almost feeling like a back-and-forth dialogue between two ex-lovers.

The feeling of romantic nostalgia continues on the record’s final track “Summer of Now.” Blake’s voice trembles on the minimalistic track as he looks back on past relationships, singing, “I’m not the summer of 2015 / But I can be the summer of now.” Especially as the seemingly never-ending events of 2020 continue to play out, it seems Blake is yearning to go back to 2015. Yet despite being lovesick for a happier time, he counteracts this nostalgia with an optimistic recognition that something better will come in “the summer of now.” The track is not so much a longing for the past as it is a reflection on Blake’s personal growth and his wondering about how things could have gone if he were the man he is today back in 2015.

Fitting for the EP’s title, “Before” is reminiscent of Blake’s earliest work. Except this time, he finally has the confidence to put his vocals on full display. Chopping and screwing his voice between shuffling layers and using effects as more of an artistic expression than a mask to hide behind, Blake pushes his experimentation to the limits he failed to reach on his last album “Assume Form.”

Like Blake, we all might be yearning for the euphoric feeling of the club. But while we’re waiting to get back to that transcendent dance floor, we’re left alone with the thoughts we believed to have vanished when we lost ourselves in the neon lights and smoke-filled air. Yet, we can’t go back to the way it was before, so it’s up to us to find a new dance floor to escape to one that might just be a lot closer than you would ever think.