Long known for his strikingly imaginative cover versions, James Blake earlier this year released a version of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed” which struck a chord with millions of downloaders and streamers. Encouraged by the response, Blake released a six-track EP of cover versions titled, simply, Covers.
Blake has many strengths as a musician: his expressive piano playing, his sense of space; but what distinguishes him most of all is his voice — his tenor soars with ease into falsetto but also dips into baritone territory. Thus he can comfortably cover songs by both male and female singers (he memorably covered Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” almost a decade ago).
To each of the six tracks on Covers, Blake brings something new — not by adding, but by taking away. In the case of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, he strips away the original’s accoutrements, so that all is left is a metronomic pulse, a piano which glissandos in an echo of Joy Division’s sparkling chimes, and a vestigial ghost of Peter Hook’s bassline. It’s stunning.
On Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer”, Blake’s voice almost cracks with emotion, while his piano is in turmoil.
“When the Party’s Over” takes Billie Eilish’s already minimal arrangement and pares it down to piano and voice, Blake demonstrating his vocal range in the first few bars, opening with a husky croak and ascending to pure and rarefied heights.
On “Godspeed”, again, it’s just Blake and his piano, immaculate, restrained and elegant. “When We’re Older” is Blake’s adaptation, with some new lyrics, of Beyoncé’s “Otherside”, from her Black Is King album; a seismic bass note adds drama. He is even within touching distance of Roberta Flack’s immaculate version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. This little collection is a thing of rare and delicate beauty.
‘Covers’ is released by Republic Records/Polydor Records