Cameron Blake‘s previous album Alone on the World Stage was aptly titled: the music was mostly Blake’s voice accompanied by a single instrument, while the lyrics were often internally-focused. Fear Not is Blake at the opposite end of the spectrum: a crew of almost fifty musicians rushes from Tiananmen Square to Jerusalem to Baltimore to rural farm country to send the titular message to all of humanity. It is an album of unprecedented scope for Blake. The risk pays off in spades, as this is Blake’s most distinctive, accomplished work to date.
Blake’s voice remains front and center through it all. His low, drama-laden voice is a singular one that I can pick out instantly wherever I hear it. Blake’s vocal performances are the type that’ll grow on you; his tone is often-brash, he pairs a love of unexpected chord changes with unexpected vocal melodies, and he is unafraid to roar. Those who love atypical vocal presentations like those of Frightened Rabbit, Damien Rice, The Walkmen/Hamilton Leithauser and others will find much to love in Blake’s voice.
One of the big transformations in this record is Blake’s comfort level with the vocal lines he writes. He’s never been afraid to go for a soaring line, but here he is clearly in the zone. Between the rock-solid pop lines of “The Only Diamond,” the thrilling theatrics of “Old Red Barn,” the powerful emotion in “Tiananmen Square,” and the subtle inflections in the delivery of “Philip Seymour Hoffman,” Blake shows that he can confidently use his voice in a wide array of situations.
It’s good that his voice is versatile, because this album is a whirlwind of moods. “Sandtown” is a ten-car pileup of thrashing drums, skronking jazz horns, and vocal howls that seems to accurately describe the chaos of a Baltimore police raid. On the other end of the spectrum, the title track opener is about as delicate as the album gets, with an angelic choral backdrop and cello supporting Blake’s voice and piano. “Queen Bee” is a train-whistle folk-rock rave-up, while “Old Red Barn” is a jubilant dixieland track. Several of the tracks slot into his core sound of dramatic singer/songwriter tracks with folk influences (“Tiananmen Square,” “Wailing Wall,” “Monterey Bay”), but the diversity here is huge.
And yet, as much as “Queen Bee,” “The Only Diamond,” and “Old Red Barn” are a blast, it’s “Tiananmen Square” that is the standout here. The hugely emotive song is based on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, filled out with trebly piano keys, noodly lead guitar, solemn cello, reverent vocal melismas, and thoughtful drums.
Blake’s voice swings from calm to booming in the huge conclusion to the song, as the strings ratchet up and the drums push hard. The reason for the drama is the story of Tank Man, who defied Chinese tanks in 1989. Blake draws the listener into the story, then poses and answers a central question to the listener: “Was I born for this? / I was born for this.” The global scope of the incident and the personal nature of the questions in light of that important event are expertly juxtaposed. This tension between the lofty and the minor is balanced in the lyrics throughout the record.
Cameron Blake’s Fear Not is an intense experience of great scope and depth. It is an album that is in turns wrenching and fun. Its impact is in clear relationship to its scope: there’s a lot to hear here, and a lot to think about once you’ve heard it. If you’re into adventurous work from a thoughtful writer, Fear Not should be on your must-hear list for the year. Highly recommended.
Fear Not comes out tomorrow.