167: James Blake, ‘Lindisfarne’

James Blake – Lindisfarne II

The Wilhelm Scream

I Never Learnt to Share

James Blake

James Blake

I don’t understand these young whippersnappers. I don’t even understand some of the older ones. There’s so much new music going on that a person can’t keep up. I remember the good old days when there were only 40 songs you needed to know, two or three new ones a week. That’s a doable task. I just got the weekly AMG New Release Newsletter with 59 new albums (including brand-new releases by Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Boz Scaggs – wait, isn’t Boz still alive?). There’s one other artist I know (Madeleine Peyroux), and one I wish I did (They Might Be Giants). But there are more than 50 I’ve never heard of, including Chelsea Light Moving, Son Volt, Rhye, and How to Destroy Angels. And those are headliners! Hell, there are a whole passle of genres I’ve never heard of. What is Alternative Dance? Is it sitting wallflowered on a chair in the corner drinking punch? What is Experimental Techno? Is that as opposed to Traditional Techno? Neo-Psychedelia. I’m so old I’ve lived to see a neo-??

But as R. Tarfon and The Sages (that’s a Trad-Ethical Rap band) said, ‘You don’t gotta finish the job, bro’, but you do gotta keep on keepin’ on.’

Self-portrait by James’ paternal Uncle William

A few weeks ago I tripped over a young London singer-songwriter named James Blake (b. 1988; that makes him, what, eleven?) I don’t know how it happened. I might have been looking for some ballads by his wacko uncle William. But it was a copacetic if serendipitous fluke of fortuity.

Because he’s been on my turntable ever since. Haunting ain’t the word. He possesses you.

He began releasing electronic music recorded and produced in his bedroom during his last year of university, 2009. Since then, he’s put out one eponymous album and five EPs (“The Bells Sketch”, “CMYK”, “Klavierwerke”, “Enough Thunder” and “Love What Happened Here”).  He also does a lot of remixes under the name Harmonimix. I have no idea what that means.

James’ maternal Uncle Bela

But that album! The only thing vaguely similar I’ve ever heard is Antony Hegarty of Antony & the Johnsons – minimalist, restrained, intense, unsettling. Antony’s flagrant ‘questionable sexuality’ is more of a distraction than an attraction for me. He’s so Other that you can put him in a drawer and close it. Not so James. He is in fact the boy from the haunted house next door –expressionless, innocent, as bland in appearance as his name, as harmless as Bela Lugosi’s nephew visiting from Nebraska.

But watch out, boys and girls. We’re talking about a whole different can of earworms.

In interviews, he’s serious and modest. In live recordings, you can hear the kiddies in the audience shouting and screaming and singing along with his Martian music. I was at a Mothers of Invention concert in 1967, and it was nowhere near that strange.

Sweet Baby-faced James at the keyboard

He’s very proud of the fact that he creates the music on his computer, from start to finish, in his bedroom. The music features a toolbox of trademark elements: gentle piano, talking guitar, baffling harmonies, hypnotic percussion, a mix of distorted human and luminous alien sounds, caesurae (sudden breaks in the music), less-is-more vocals, mystifying lyrics.

You know, that doesn’t sound very appealing on paper. So why have I been listening to it non-stop for three weeks? Don’t listen to me, listen to James.

Try ‘The Wilhelm Scream’ (I don’t know about my dreams/All that I know is I’m fallin’)


Try ‘I Never Learnt to Share’ (My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/But I don’t blame them)

Try ‘Limit to Your Love’ (There’s a limit to your love/Like a waterfall in slow motion/Like a map with no ocean/There’s a limit to your love). The song is a cover. The original is by a Canadian singer-songwriter lass, Feist. That’s her real surname, but it means ‘a nervous belligerent little mongrel dog’.

And if James hasn’t confounded you enough yet, here’s a shocker: another cover of a female Canadian singer-songwriter, one Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’, which he does very commendably. The kid can’t be all bad. And he says he cut his chops growing up on ‘Dock of a Bay’.

Kestrels in flagrante delicto

While you’re listening, let me tell you a little story about the Talking Guitar that James employs. It was more or less invented by Pete Drake, the Nashville pedal steel guitarist (‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘Stand By Your Man’, and George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, where Peter Framptom learned the technique from him). Pete (not Peter) had a hit with it in the 1964 gem ‘Forever’. Now, that was music.

But the coup de grace for my money is the second of two versions of ‘Lindisfarne’ on the album. Here’s the song. I recommend that you not watch the video. It’s not suitable for the workplace. It’s not suitable for anywhere.

Beacon don't fly too high

Beacon don’t fly too high

I’ve been looking at the lyrics of ‘Lindisfarne’ a lot, and have utterly failed to make any sense of them. Well, we come to praise James, not to demystify him. So I’ll just give you some bits of information, and please let me know what you make of it all:

  • Lindisfarne is a wee tidal island (usually accessible at low-tide by traversing sand and mud flats) near the border between England and Scotland, with a population of 162. In the 7th century it was a center for Christian evangelists, but then the Vikings invaded in 793, and things haven’t been the same since.
  • There are kestrels on Lindisfarne.
  • Saver’s Pass is a type of bus ticket.
  • It’s kids like this James Blake that deny me the luxury of ignoring music by people younger than Frank Sinatra. Thank you, James, and best of luck to you.


Kestrels breed,
Looking further than I can see
Without tact to read,
She’d take a shine to me.
Beacon don’t fly too high,
Beacon don’t fly too high.

For all your time,
Playful crime in rain
Worth it being cold,
Roofing for the lanes.
A lesson lost again,
A lesson lost again.

Cute but I’ll take the bus,
With fees and favours gone
Cracks in Saver’s Pass,
And a white that sometimes shone
Wanton borrowed gun,
Wanton borrowed gun.

Kestrels breed,
Looking further than I can see
Without tact to read,
She’d take a shine to me.
Beacon don’t fly too high,
Beacon don’t fly too high.

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