Saying Jacob Allen appears front and center on his new album cover isn’t technically wrong. But it’s obfuscation, much like the image of the artist himself. You can spot a foot and a baggy pant leg bent on a bed, and then Allen’s torso vanishes behind a pink curtain. Curving across the entire scene is the album’s title, In Praise of Shadows, a thesis statement for its contents taken from an essay by Japanese thinker Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.
Allen, who records and releases music under the name Puma Blue, might as well count those shadows and intrigue as collaborators in his liner notes. In his jazzy, rhythmic, and ethereal takes on R&B and downtempo café music, as on the cover of his debut album (out February 4), he’s there, but he’s immaterial. He’s like mist, or a dream, or the pale lavender melancholy that cloaks his warm voice on “Already Falling,” a minimal, sensual ballad in the vein of The xx that haunts with a ticking rhythm. Yet Allen’s air of noirish mystique — what you might call his aesthetic or, if you’re a cynic, his brand — belies a very human collection of songs that tackle sorrow and powerlessness but also new love. He sees the light and feels it deeply. He simply understands the shadows more.
“Part of me wanted something incredibly significant for the album that would really tell the whole story in one image,” Allen tells MTV News about the cover. “And part of me just wanted something that captured just the feeling or the mood. This was, in a way, a compromise because I’m on the front cover, but my face is completely obscured.”
You can see that face — in a black-and-white blur — on the front of his 2019 live album, recorded in Atlanta. Maybe that was a clue to his future. The East Londoner recently relocated to the Georgia music hub to cohabitate with his girlfriend, who’s from there, and he said he loves “the vibration” of his new city, the place where he fell in love. He also feels an affinity for Japan, despite only having visited briefly a few years ago, and later discovered Tanizaki’s ideas of “negative space over positive space.” Naturally, those theories found their way into his work. He takes solace in Tanizaki’s ideas of “negative space over positive space.” “These songs have really come from a place of having gone through lots of shit, to be honest, or gone through really hard times, or learned hard lessons — and coming out the other side pretty much grateful.”
Hard times like “horrible” insomnia since age 10, which led to depression, experiences he evokes both as a distant memory, on the swooning “Sleeping,” and from the other side, on the gauzy, piano- and saxophone-colored single “Opiate.” “Sleep much longer than I did before,” he sings, seemingly celebrating how he overcame that nocturnal paralysis. Then, the caveat: “Still as a tomb though, I’m scared instead, because / I must be losing my mind.” It began with fellow downbeat musician Alex Burey sending Allen a melody, over which he added piano and some harmonies. It’s not always so mathematical: Closer “Super Soft” (which indeed hardly rises above a whisper) surfaced from a drunken strum session with Allen, brandishing nylon-stringed guitars.
Then there’s “Oil Slick,” a wonderfully rollicking jam built on a breakbeat drum groove courtesy of Ellis Dupuy, who’s also handled percussion for Nilüfer Yanya. Its energy is unlike anything else on In Praise of Shadows, morphing with each new round of the musical carousel it originated as, at a festival years ago where Allen and his band had to vamp to give the audience a bit more. “I always felt like I kind of had unfinished business with this song,” Allen said. So he added layers, a loud chorus, then a wobbling outro. “I was honestly ready to give up on it because I thought this album had come from a lot more of a softer place, and this song is honestly quite punky.”
Its inclusion speaks to Allen’s youth, moving away from the Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder songs he was raised on and exploring his own love of Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He came back around at about 18, embedding himself in the Southeast London jazz scene and eventually rediscovering the ’90s R&B he’d remembered from the radio. As he explains this, he says something you’d expect the man on the cover of In Praise of Shadows to elucidate: “Just hearing the sound of a trombone was really nostalgic.” (His father used to play.)
You’d probably expect a mind like his — the kind that goes to bat for Radiohead’s The King of Limbs, a sleepy and largely unsung entry in a storied catalog — to keep a dream diary, too, and he does. Well, he did, while at music college as a teenager. “Quite honestly, it just got a little bit terrifying,” he says, so he bailed out. But he got some interesting songs out of it.
Allen’s also gotten plenty of mileage out of the fact that, yes, he sounds like Jeff Buckley. He knows it, and he owns it. As much as it’s become a shortcut to evoke the late vocal powerhouse whose soul seemed a bottomless well he could keep drawing from, there’s simply no denying the similarities with Allen’s voice, a force both soft and galactic, capable of sweet, melodic knife-twisting. His skeletal live album, like Buckley’s myth-making 1993 Live at Sin-é, finds him likewise plucking a slightly buzzing Telecaster, oohing in front of a café crowd, and covering arty ’60s pop. The hallmarks are all there, and Allen doesn’t shy away from them, devoting his entire music video for the gossamer “Silk Print” to Buckley via era-appropriate “Hallelujah” cosplay. But he’s also wary of taking the influence too far.
“I try not to cover him because he sort of feels a little untouchable,” Allen says, “and I’m not a purist or a snob at all. I’m always open to hearing other people cover him. I already sort of take so much from him, and I feel very indebted to him as an artist. I try not to sound like a copycat or something — not that I even could because he’s just so unique.” Allen’s attempted a few covers, though, when he was younger. He tried “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” solo, and reimagined “Mojo Pin” as a D’Angelo-type R&B excursion. But if he had to try again, he’d opt for something from the back half of Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, Buckley’s unfinished second album that found him drifting into rawer territory.
It’s tempting to wonder similarly about Allen’s trajectory. Would an In Praise of Shadows follow-up introduce grungy textures into his delicate R&B soundscapes? Will his new adopted city offer a wellspring of new musical inspiration? Does TikTok, with its endless “stream of dog videos people telling weird stories” that buoyed him and his girlfriend through lockdown, point toward livelier energy in future tunes? That’s all still unknowable — like the image of him on his album cover.
In the meantime, Allen’s got 14 new songs and a burning desire to play them live, a muscle he hasn’t been able to flex in a year. “I just want to treat every show like it could be the last show because really, it genuinely could be,” he says. “I’m just really excited to play actual vibrations to actual people, human beings, and not just be stuck in my house.” If you want to know him, find him there on that bed, half-cloaked in satin armor, and push play. But do it quickly, before the dream ends.