One of my favorite songs released in the past few months is James Blake’s “I Never Learnt to Share.” It’s an abstract song, but it reveals the bones of what makes a song a song. The structure is dramatic, but in a way that lays bare structure and drama, in both its lyric and the surrounding music.
In the (rather sporadic) course of writing under this column name, I’ve tried to write about different aspects of music. I’m not much for lyrics. They are certainly a secondary concern to me. If the music doesn’t grab me, it’s pretty rare that a song’s lyric will make up for that. If the lyric is great, that’s an added bonus.
But it’s the lyric I want to concentrate on first here. In toto, the lyric to “I Never Learnt to Share” goes as follows: “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them.” That’s it, over and over, without change.
That lyric contains quite a world of possibilities and emotions. Anger, betrayal, regret, doubt, resignation, sadness, blood, exhaustion, guilt, grief, longing, and lies. That last one is a bit problematic, as who knows, James Blake could have a perfectly good relationship with his siblings, or he could have no siblings at all, and the only lie he’s told is to the listener. Is it autobiographical? Or is it just a wonderfully enigmatic sentence? It certainly sets up a mystery. Why do they not speak to him? What has he done? If he’s at fault, why’d he do it?
The recording starts with just Blake’s multitracked voice, joined more and more by deeper and deeper harmonies. Ethereal and small-sounding, yet still churchy organs build slowly, but are then replaced by a slow beat of fingersnaps and shuffling percussion. The organs return and lead into a figure that raises the tension in a skin-crawling way that does the song no service except to build anticipation. This build is not a build that says, “Something’s coming here;” it’s the type of build that HAD BETTER be followed by something powerful.
Blake has spent the better part of the track building a mystery through repetition and anticipation, and as this skeleton of a song moves forward, it demands some meat, and that’s what Blake does. The end is a glorious bloodletting of ducking and darting synths, with sub-bass destroying your neighbor’s serene sleep and beats sucking the inside out.
That this peak lasts all of 40 seconds before trailing into a rather beatific ending is proof that, as a songwriter, Blake understands structure, drama and economy as well as anyone working today. It’s not just that this is a damn good song, it’s that Blake shows you exactly how it’s done. All the signifiers are proclaimed blatantly, with each moment clearly defined, but with their meaning obscured.
Every time the lyric circles back around, the question of “why” comes up, and it’s hard to not come up with new, increasingly disturbing or mundane reasons. When the musical peak comes, the lyrics cease, but what kind of catharsis is this? Is it his anger, or is it some sort of an epiphany, resignation or peace?
Blake offers no answers, only a long contemplation followed by some response he’s keeping wordlessly to himself.