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The song RETROGRADE by British musician James Blake is the first published single on his highly acclaimed albumOvergrown. The song is formative in how it breaks down soul and gospel as well as the musical elements of the singer-songwriter genre and reassembles them in the context of electronic dance music.
I. History of origin
Work on the albumOvergrown lasted a year and a half. Like all tracks on this album and on previous releases, RETROGRADE was written, produced and mixed by Blake in his London apartment. The only exception is the collaboration with the British musician, producer and artist Brian Eno, who is listed as co-author on the song “Digital Lion”. The familiar environment is a reason for Blake to work from home. Although he was advised to record in other studios - especially to try out different work processes and find new inspiration - working with familiar equipment seems more important to him. Only in this way can he fully utilize his strengths (cf. Blake in an interview, Willet 2013). Blake always proceeds in the same way when writing his pieces: a few piano chords or vowel lines form the starting point for his productions, which are then expanded or replaced by other harmonies. Only after the entire harmonic material of the resulting song is available does Blake examine his work for the presence of melodic structures, wondering whether a bass is necessary and only then begins to program a beat for the piece (see Blake in the interview, Robertson 2013).
Not just as the first single from the albumOvergrown RETROGRADE plays an important role in Blake's publications, also in private terms. This is indicated by numerous interviews in which he draws connections between the creation of the song and his relationship with the American singer and guitarist Theresa Wayman.
After his self-titled debut albumJames Blake from 2011, James Blake released the two EPsEnough thunder andLove What Happened Here. Before the album even started, RETROGRADE was released on February 11, 2013. As part of a small tour, Blake presented some songs from the new album on December 4, 2012 in London's Conway Hall, including RETROGRADE. The music video accompanying the song was released on February 15, 2013.
James Blake comes from a musical family. His father James Litherland was a guitarist and songwriter and can be seen as an important influence. He covered his father's song “Where to Turn” and released it on the album under the title “The Wilhelm Scream”James Blake (2011). Blake received a classical piano training from Goldsmith University London and a degree in popular music.
James Blake is often referred to as the central representative of post-dubstep, an electronic music style that can be characterized by its pronounced bass-heaviness and its often syncopated rhythm. This classification can be traced back to Blake's early work as a DJ and producer. In 2007 Blake discovered dubstep for himself (cf. Lamont 2013), published singles belonging to this genre in 2009 and 2010 (for example “Air & Lack Thereof” and “The Bells Sketch”) and was able to record initial successes. After further publications (“Pembroke”, 2010 andCMYK [EP], 2010) gradually emerged, however, his cross-genre style, which was already foreseen on the piano works EP (2010), but at the latest on his first albumJames Blake (2011) was clearly visible. Here he uses elements of dubstep occasionally, but mixes them, especially with regard to the design of his vocals, with the musical vocabulary of soul and gospel. The piano comes more to the fore. Blake repeatedly cites the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, especially with the song “A Case of You” (1971), the soul singer Sam Cooke with “Lost and Lookin '” (1963) and Stevie Wonder as the greatest influences he particularly emphasizes because of his influence on the use of synthesizers. Both worlds, that of electronic dance music as well as that of traditional soul and gospel, form the cornerstones of Blake's musical work. Blake leads this mixture on the two following EPsEnough thunder (2011) andLove What Happened Here (2011) consistently continue. On the former, the piano and singing are in the foreground - here you can also find the cover version of Joni Mitchell's song “A Case of You” - while on the latter, electronic instruments (synthesizer and drum computer) are combined with classic soul harmonies . On the one hand, Blake fills a musical niche that finds its place particularly at music festivals with a focus on electronic music and is rarely heard on the radio. On the other hand, however, his music is also discussed in the feature sections of the newspapers, which can be attributed in particular to the artful mix of electronic design elements and popular musical styles.
The song RETROGRADE lasts 3:29 minutes and builds on an arrangement that initially appears to be rather uncomplicated after a superficial listening, but which, on closer inspection, captivates with its wealth of detail - both in instrumental and in formal terms.
With regard to the structure of the form, terminology must first be clarified. The English terms verse and chorus are only used to describe the music, while the German terms strophe and refrain are used exclusively to describe the text (cf. Kaiser 2011). RETROGRADE basically consists of the two large molded parts A and B, which form an ABA ’shape. Verse a (0: 00-0: 25), verse a '(0: 25-0: 50), the repetition of verse a' (0: 50-1: 14) and verse a ”(0 : 50-1: 40), which differs from a 'only in a slight variation of the instruments used. The adjoining part B contains the chorus b (1: 40-2: 04), the repetition of the chorus b (2: 04-2: 28) and the chorus b '(2: 28-2: 53), whereby the latter again only requires an expansion of the range of instruments. The molded part A ’consists of the same material as A, but only contains two verses a” and a ”’ (2: 53-3: 43), which, in contrast to the verse of the molded part A, differ by an only slightly varied bass line.
The basic character of the piece seems simple. On the one hand, this impression is created by the uncomplicated structure of the ABA ’shape, but the instruments, which are greatly reduced compared to many other pop songs, also contribute to this effect. The basis of the song is a piano and the voice of James Blake, which is initially used without text and is therefore treated like an instrument. Together, the piano and the vocals form a tonal level (verse a), which pervades the entire song, sometimes more, sometimes less prominently. The piece begins and ends with her. From a formal point of view, this level, and thus the verse, consists of two times four bars. The following chords sound during the first four measures: | G | Cm | D + | D |, where only Cm sounds not on the first beat, but on 1+. The second part of the verse (bars 5-8) begins with a line descending from D to B (the left hand moves parallel to this a third lower, i.e. from B to G), which ends in Fisdim in the following bar, in bar 7 of the verse is repeated and leads to a D7sus in bar 8, which modulates to a D chord on the 2+ of the same bar. Above this piano part lies Blake's textless, hummed singing, which forms an ascending and descending line.
From a rhythmic point of view, the entry of the piano and the singing in the second half of the verse on the and beats is particularly noticeable, which creates a laid-back character or a slight shuffle. With verse a ’, a programmed drum beat sets in, which further underlines the simplicity of the piece. Because this consists exclusively, and this applies to the entire song, of a kick and a snare drum, the kick being played on the first and third beat of each measure, the snare on the second and fourth beat. The only exception are the sixth bars of each phrase (a, a ’, b, etc.), where the kick also sounds on the 2+. From a ”, in addition to the piano, the hummed vocals and the drum beat, a bass synthesizer is added, which is already announced in the last bar of a’. The typical James Blake contrast between acoustic (piano and vocals) and electronic components such as drum computers and synthesizers results from this set of instruments. This contrast can not only be observed within the molded parts, the differences between the two molded parts A and B also reflect these opposites in terms of sound. In A, the focus is on the piano and the natural sounding and little edited vocals, in Part B the synthesizers gain the upper hand. These form two levels: firstly, a synthesizer which, together with the piano, creates the chords | G F | Cm B A | G F | Es D | Cmin | Cmin Es | D | D | plays. The same descending line is carried over from the verse to the bass synthesizer. The second level is a synthesizer, which holds a high G throughout. Due to the slightly different frequencies of the individual oscillators of the instrument, the sound beats characteristic of molded part B are created, which create the impression of a siren. This siren effect is reinforced by the ascending or descending glissando of the oscillators at the beginning of phrases b and b ’, which identify form part B as the climax of the piece. From b ’, in addition to the hummed vocal line that has been running through since verse a, another textless vocal level is heard, which lies far in the background and also gives a siren-like impression. With A ’the piece ends in a fade-out and is only varied very slightly.
From a textual point of view, RETROGRADE can be described as a love song. In several interviews Blake speaks openly about his partner, the American singer and guitarist Theresa Wayman, as the muse who inspired him to write RETROGRADE: “I do have company. I had a muse this record - a beautiful person to write about, to be excited about, and to be sad to be missing. When I write, ‘We are alone now,’ it's about exactly that […] ”(Pasori 2013). The uncertainty of the relationship in particular inspires him and encourages his creativity (cf. Lamont 2013). He goes into the spatial distance between the two. She lives and works in Los Angeles, he in South London. In RETROGRADE, Blake processes this state in an abstract way. Topics such as loss, isolation, loneliness and waiting for improvement emerge and determine the atmospheric qualities of the text. A person is addressed directly who seems to be left alone, isolated from the rest of the world in which he has lost himself: “You're on your own, in a world you've grown” (own transcription, as well as in Following). The lyric self assures this person that it will wait for them, will support them. At the same time, it asks them to find themselves again and to come to themselves - independently: "I'll wait, so show me why you're strong, ignore everybody else, we're alone now". The lyrical ego is also not unaffected by the situation of the person. It shows itself to be affected (“Suddenly I'm hit”). But it knows that it will be better for both (“Darkness of the dawn”) when she regains her safety and has become the person she once was (“And your friends are gone, when your friends won ' t come / So show me where you fit / So show me where you fit ”).
The structure of the text, similar to that of the music, is kept quite simple. The text begins with the first, six-line stanza, followed by the first chorus. The second stanza is repeated after the second chorus, which is reproduced in a slightly varied manner by repeating the lines “We’re alone now” and “I’ll wait” several times. The connection between the form of the music and that of the text is interesting. Both the first stanza and the first refrain of the text are above the verse a 'and verse a ”. Due to the compositionally almost consistently calm verse, the chorus does not get any enhancement from a musical point of view. This impression is reinforced by the similar melody of the verse and the chorus, as well as by the length of the chorus of six lines, which consequently does not counterbalance the verse. In contrast, Blake put the second stanza above the chorus, which emphasizes this with its distinctive shape. The first line of the second stanza “Suddenly I'm hit” forms the musical climax of the piece. The g1 of this line is the highest note of the vocal melody. Although the beginning of the first verse is also on this pitch, the effect of the chorus clearly emphasizes the beginning of the second verse. From there the melody forms a large line that descends parallel to the synthesizers. The subsequent second chorus is also above the chorus, as is the repetition of the second verse. So it can be said that the frame-forming components of the piece (form and sequence, arrangement and instrumentation) are very reduced and simple on their own. However, the interaction of these components opens up new levels. It is the same with the ‘inner’ components of music, i.e. the harmony, rhythm and melody. Considered individually, for example, the rhythm of the piece given by the drum computer is very simple. In the interplay with the rhythmic shifts of the melody and the piano part in the verse, however, a complex nesting arises that is not noticeable with superficial listening.
Characteristic for the sound and the effect of the piece, as for almost all songs by James Blake, is primarily his very warm and soulful voice. Especially with RETROGRADE it is in the foreground from a production point of view, without - as is common with many pop productions - heavily processed or recorded the same vocal lines several times in order to create the broadest possible sound image. Due to the airy arrangement of the piece, this is not necessary, and Blake's voice always remains in the center. In general, the entire production is characterized by the fact that it was limited to the bare essentials. Except for the piano and the voice, which were positioned in a virtual room through the use of reverb, it is a tonally rather dry production. Synthesizers and drum machines seem to have been left untouched. In addition to this sound processing, the instruments used particularly shape the sound of RETROGRADE. The drum computer, probably a Roland TR-808 from the 1980s, and the analog synthesizer "Dave Smith Prophet '08" (Blake uses this at least live) produce an overall not particularly modern sound or one that seems "retro".
The release of the album in 2013 caused a lot of media coverage. Not only did some music blogs that cater to more musical niches reported on Blake's release, but also the big, established music magazines like theMusic Express in Germany or the USRolling Stone as well as newspapers likeThe Guardian, The Times or themirror announced the album with interviews and positive reviews. The average received the albumOvergrown 82 out of 100 possible points (based on the evaluation of 40 reviews by www.metacritic.com), RETROGRADE was often praised as particularly worth hearing and outstanding. James Blake received a Grammy nomination (2014) after the album was released and won the 2013 Mercury Price for Best Album of the Year. Despite these awards, a chart success with RETROGRADE was not achieved - although the album reached number one in the US dance charts in 2013, the single only reached number 87 on the UK single charts of the same year. Above all, his experimental style of music, which explores boundaries and which leads to unfamiliar sound images and formal processes, can be responsible for this. On the one hand, Blake was featured in the feature sections for that very reason; so was the headlineTIME: “Yes, he is the hope of pop” (Weihser 2013). RETROGRADE has been used in some television productions, as part of the trailers or in the score itself, including. atThe leftovers, Suits, Master of Sex, Empire andSilent Witness. In addition, RETROGRADE received the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song in 2014.
LEOPOLD HELMET WOOD
Vocals: James Blake
Instruments: James Blake
Music / Songwriting: James Blake
Producer: James Blake
Mastered by: Matt Colton
Label: Altlas Recordings
- Airhead & James Blake.Pembroke, 2010, Brainmath, MATH 06, UK (2xFile).
- James Blake. “Retrograde”. On:Overgrown, 2013, Atlas Recordings, ATLAS10CD, UK & Europe (CD / album).
- James Blake. “The Wilhelm Scream”. On:James Blake, 2011, Atlas Recordings / A&M Records, ATLAS02CD, UK & Europe (CD / album).
- James Blake.Love What Happened Here. 2011, R & S Records, RS 1111, UK (3xFile).
- James Blake.CMYK EP. 2010, R & S Records, RS 1003C, Europe (vinyl / 12 ″ EP).
- James Blake.Piano works EP. 2010, R & S Records, RS1007, UK (vinyl / 12 ″ EP).
- James Blake.The Bells Sketch. 2010, Hessle Audio, HES011, UK (vinyl / 12 ″ EP).
- James Blake.Air & Lack Thereof. 2009, Hemlock Recordings, HEK004, UK (vinyl / 12 ″ single).
- Kaiser, Ulrich: Babylonian confusion. On the terminology of the form analysis of pop and rock music. In:Journal of the Society for Music Theory, No. 8/1 (2011), 43-75.
- Lamont, Tom: "James Blake: 'I thrive on not knowing what's coming next'". In:The Guardian, 7 April 2013. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/apr/07/james-blake-interview-overgrown [03/11/2015].
- Overgrown by James Blake. In: Metacritic. URL: http://www.metacritic.com/music/overgrown/james-blake [03/11/2015].
- Pasori, Cedar: "Interview: James Blake Talks Overgrown, Kendrick Lamar, and 1-800-Dinosaur". In: Pigeons & Planes, April 8, 2013. URL: http: //pigeonsandplanes.com/2013/04/interview-james-blake-talks-overgrown-kendrick-lamar-and-1-800-dinosaur/ [03/11/2015 ].
- Robertson, Emma: “James Blake on misquotes, falling in love, and everything that went into creating Overgrown”. In: Beatport, July 19, 2013. URL: https://news.beatport.com/james-blake-on-being-misquoted-falling-in-love-and-everything-that-went-in-to-creating- overgrown / [03/11/2015].
- Weihser, Rabea: “Yes, he is the hope of pop”. In: Zeit Online, April 3, 2013. URL: http: // http: //www.zeit.de/kultur/musik/2013-04/james-blake-overgrown [03/11/2015].
- Willet, Sam: Interview: James Blake. In: Consequence of Sound, 23 May 2013. URL: http://consequenceofsound.net/2013/05/interview-james-blake/ [03/11/2015].
About the author
Leopold Helmholz: “Retrograde (James Blake)”. In:Song dictionary. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/retrograde, 06/2017.Print
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