Review Summary: now you can feel everything
It's much easier to understand music after it settles. Of course, people were saying that James Blake sounded like the future years back, but they were just guessing, the same way we do now. I don't think very many people saw the bleakness of "SICKO MODE," "XO Tour Llif3," or "Mask Off" hitting the top of the charts when "Party In The USA," "California Gurls," and "Airplanes" were the background noise we were used to. I certainly had no idea that James Blake would have such a wide influence, to the point that "I've subdued a generation" is somehow an accurate claim, and "Mile High" is being discussed as a potential chart hit (it won't be, but the fact that it's even a discussion is insane). Mildness is mainstream, negativity is normal, and people search for peace, rather than euphoria. It can be easy to forget how subversive he used to sound, since his sound became the world's.
What's so interesting about Assume Form
is how, instead of doing what most artists tend to do as their innovations reach mainstream popularity and move away from it, he moves towards it. Culture bent towards James, and he politely bows back. This led to some fantastic results. "Where's The Catch" is easily the most bar-for-bar great Andre 3000 has sounded since "The Real Her," which is alone enough to merit Assume
worth checking, not to mention Metro Boomin's blessed presence on two of the first tracks. But in accepting popular musical ideals, he loses some of what makes him magic. Verse-chorus-verse structures help make this miles more accessible than his previous works, but also less of a rewarding experience. For the first time, he's a bit predictable. James Blake
and The Colour In Anything
were deeply simplistic, isolating to just two or three layers of sound, forcing attention on the strange and ultimately gorgeous juxtapositions of his songwriting. Assume Form
lets off on this instinct a bit, with more complex instrumentation that loses much of its excitement as a result. For example, "Can't Believe The Way We Flow" could have been a masterpiece if it wasn't so concerned with sounding like a song, if it pushed the sample farther into the levels of ecstatic gospel loops it winks at in the midsection. That doesn't mean that these aren't still consistently good songs, just that they could be more powerful if they were more direct and a little less by-the-numbers.
That being said, standard James Blake is still head and shoulders above the competition. If you're interested in the blurry area between Burial and Kendrick Lamar, this is extremely worth your time. The vocal effects James have always excelled in reach new heights here, warping and shifting over each other to the point where it's often difficult to tell which are real anymore, the natural next step to the evolution of "I Never Learned To Share," "Retrograde" and "I Need A Forest Fire." Although synth pads mostly play a background role (outside of "Are You In Love," which could have been on any of his previous releases), they create a dizzying ambience essential to the album's success. Strings, a new addition to his repertoire, add a welcome layer of emotion, particularly on the romantic "I'll Come Too," the most infatuated James has ever sounded. Songwriting-wise, although more experimentation at times would have been welcome, this is completely solid. There aren't really any misses on here, with each track stretching to its natural limit and not overstaying its welcome. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus might not be wildly exciting, but it's been proven to work over many decades of popular music, and sticking with it (for the most part) on his first really mainstream project is a smart move. Even though his sound has entered popular musical consciousness, he's still enough of a forerunner that Assume Form
stands out for the production alone. And like any good pop artist, genre-bridging helps create a cohesive and appealing flow, from R&B to hip-hop to art pop to folk.
This arc is also emotional. On first listen, it feels inconsistent and maybe even a bit random. But repeated effort is rewarded by a journey through depression, passion, joy, worry, love, hope and resignation. I wouldn't call this a happy record, at least not in the way we typically think of happiness, but an accurate reflection of what happy life is like, full of peace and concern in equal measures. Disappointment is reflected in paranoia about missing out or life being too good to last. This is a far cry from the "subtext of loneliness and not getting any" of his debut. As someone who relates more to the extended depressive episode of his first works, I was expecting to feel a little alienated by a new, apparently cheerful James. I was surprised to find that feeling, and the guilt that goes along with wishing your favorite artist was sadder, was gone here. This is realistic, tangible and honest, not an overly enthusiastic pleasure, deep enough to feel regardless of what mood you're in. It really winds itself all together in "Don't Miss It," an absolutely gorgeous conclusion to the moody journey, a swansong followed by "Lullaby For My Insomniac, an epilogue journeying farther into ambient than he has before, perhaps a hint of his future. I don't know what's next for him, but I know that he keeps creating more than just the hype. I can trust him to keep making music that matters to me, and to the world.