My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #7: James Blake – ‘The Wilhelm Scream’

Given the recent ubiquity of sad-sack male singer-songwriters who wear plaid-shirts, strum guitars maudlinly, listen exclusively to Ryan Adams records and hope to get a song played on Grey’s Anatomy, James Blake was a breath of fresh air. His debut album is, without question, the weirdest album to enter the Top 10 all year. Even though I was rather disappointed with the album, every now and then a song like ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ would pop up on it and you’d realise just how exciting it was to hearing music sounding this fresh, weird and interesting. To be clear, ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ is one of the most astounding ballads you’ll hear.

It begins with a beat that is hardly there at all and a synth that barely registers more than a note every 10 seconds. Then Blake’s vocal enters, as he sings a smattering of lyrics, crisp and clear over the minimal sounds beneath. Then, slowly but surely, the clicks and burbles of electronics being to appear in the background, gradually becoming more prominent as the record goes on. As the static reaches it’s zenith, gurgling it’s way to the front of the record, it ends up with the earlier clarity of Blake’s voice being subsumed inside a barrage of noise.

The lyrics are about falling in love and being overwhelmed by that feeling and it sounds as if Blake is literally falling, slipping away from the grasp of the listener. Right at the end, however, the noise falls away and Blake’s voice comes back clear as day. It’s a stunning end to a stunning record. More like this, please Mr Blake.

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3 Responses to “My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #7: James Blake – ‘The Wilhelm Scream’”

  1. Sam Says:

    Again, agree with all the above – including about the album being a bit of a let down after the astonishing EPs, as well as TWS being an incredible song. What I also love about it is the more contextual side:

    For a start, it’s actually a cover-version of none-too-proggy early-70s ballad Where To Turn (original is here, and well worth a listen: http://soundcloud.com/abeano/james-litherland-where-to-turn), and then, to compound that, the original is by James Blake’s father (https://twitter.com/#!/jamesblake/statuses/35897854434361344), which raises lots of interesting questions about how Blake potentially interprets its lyrics. I’ve heard a lot of commentators say that the fact it’s not original detracts from the song – the emotion can’t be real if he’s only singing someone else’s words – but I think it rather adds to it: as you say, Blake’s version of the song is pretty wonderfully unconventional by itself – but how much odder is it to be singing, with such conviction, a love song that your father wrote, either about your mother (weird) or about another woman who isn’t your mother (weirder)?

    And then there’s the title. What’s a Wilhelm Scream got to do with anything? Apparently nothing – the Wilhelm Scream is a stock “scream” sound effect used in B-movies and TV shows since the 50s (more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream). But perhaps by renaming his own father’s deeply personal love song after a piece of utility audio, a fake facsimile to be dubbed over something real, is he actually kinda saying, “look, this isn’t really me, it’s not my voice”?

    For me, that absolving of responsibility *does* detract from the intensity of the emotion, but equally shows Blake to be one hell of an actor. And in a way, the removal of the intimacy makes the lyrics feel less uncomfortably confessional and allows the listener to concentrate of the absolutely genius subtle/banging production. Either way, it makes the song itself a hell of a lot more interesting…

  2. Sam Says:

    Oh bollocks comments aren’t supposed to be longer than blog entries themselves, are they? Apologies for the ramble.

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