Review Summary: I pull up, hop out, air out, made it look sexy
James Blake’s music has always pointed toward a lesson hard-earned, with the cold, intricate sculptures to match: feelings left unsaid, desires left unmatched, matches left un-swiped. Coming at the turn of a decade about ready to forcibly recede the maximalist pop of its yesteryear into bent shapes and silhouettes, 2011’s self-titled post-dubstep artifact felt as much of its time as history has since revealed it to be fashionably out of step, drawing upon its own insular whirring clockwork to serve as Blake’s calling card (not for nothing did Drake display the artwork in-studio as his own Take Care
took shape for a late fall release) just as its form evoked the tender, pointed personality at its helm. Considered in hindsight, a scrupulous, expansive, and adoring audience might have been ill-suited for the particulars that made that album a rightful classic, its long-player narrative interpolating pop songwriting as a language to communicate implacable insights, simple as they were: “Beacon don’t fly too high” goes one warbly, prescient refrain, and so an audience seized upon the sound as some new scripture, its bashful prodigy borne into expectations too big to carry.
Carry he did; Overgrown
and The Colour in Anything
to wit. Lauded in their time for the meticulous nature and fortuity of being A James Blake Production, these successors proved some qualities easily transferred to paper: a signature synthetic sound of vulnerable, piano-driven R&B mapped to threaded synths and pin-prick percussion, a swath of black and blue soul music so thick as to render his aesthetic at once instantaneously emotional; and largely, regrettably impersonal. The dark energy could have sustained Blake’s career until the heat death comes of our universe, but considered in hindsight, one could worry about the state of things for Blake and the depression or anxiety that infected his worldview, and his pen. These were songs memorable for what they did but scanned as binary simulations of the complex existential crises such atmosphere heralded: “And we lay, nocturnal / Speculate what we feel.”
A lot has changed since then, both for the genre Blake influenced and for the man himself. For one, the ripple from Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks
and Drake’s Take Care
(of which James Blake
could be included as a sort of trilogy) has created an impact so large that mumble rap and modern trap music feel like a proper escalation of a Twitter-fueled genre cross-pollination. And for James Blake, well…: “Now I’m confiding / Know I may have gone through the motions my whole life.” That’s how Blake opens his fourth proper album, on the titular “Assume Form,” replete with all of the aforementioned signature touches that are easy to sculpt into bite-size headlines. But something here is a little different, a little lighter in the touch, in the production, in that voice
, which cracks and yearns and dips through falsettos with an acrobatic rawness as Blake tackles the depression that has prevented the clarity to see his life play out in real time. The beat sways, the melodies wander up and down the scale, and there goes the outro, “Not thinking, just primal / now you can feel everything.”
Much has been made of the influences that have brought Blake to Assume Form
, and perhaps they really can’t be overstated. His relationship with The Good Place
actress Jameel Jamil is immortalized on a few of the album’s best tracks, including the shifting movements of violins and plinking synthesizers on “Into the Red” where Blake credits his love for breaking through the anxious distrust of an industry that will exasperate, then cannibalize, those very vulnerabilities if the art yields monetary rewards. The doo-wop, Motown vibe on “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is an experiment that works like gangbusters, sending Blake’s music forward and back in a way that already feels timeless; ditto for the stuttering, percussive “I’ll Come Too”, which floats on a feeling as romantic as any Blake has yet to sculpt into tune.
Better yet might be Blake’s willingness to cede some of the spotlight to his collaborators, a practice that yielded some of his best tracks in the space between albums (Vince Staples, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé). “Mile High” closes a loop on trap music with forehead-smacking obviousness alleviated by a Metro Boomin groove that will sustain more passionate backseat hook-ups than 2018’s calculated Scorpion
. Its stitch into another Metro Boomin-assisted “Tell Them” is a particular highlight, allowing upstart Moses Sumney (2017’s Aromanticism
) to play against type as he embraces the attention to accentuate all of his vocal eccentricities. Rosalia and André 3000 show up to play into and against similar expectations, displaying a confidence on Blake’s part that brings him a few leagues further than any ill-advised Wu-Tang Clan partnerships. Before, Blake’s collaborations often felt lopsided, lacking a clear focal point as the music did heavy lifting in his absence; here, it’s a delight to hear Blake harmonize with each guest in varying ways.
So, James Blake is happy! He’s in love! He has made… another blue-black sound bed of inky, moody music. But more importantly, he has found a confidence to use this palette to express more complex notions of his self, to enrich his life and command his ascension into the popular lexicon. It is no small feat that his best music since that self-titled classic is his big pop music statement, a concession to his own affinity for the spaces his music seemed reticent to bleed into, despite its influence. “I thought I’d never find my place, but I was wrong,” he sings late in the album on the slightly silly, deliriously heartwarming “Power On”. On first single “Don’t Miss It”, he details a laundry list of anxiety-inducing realities: real time, busy mind, going outside, the 405, “but I’d miss it.” We are worlds away from the echoes of a Wilhelm Scream now, and the limber Assume Form
finds Blake with a new lease on life. We were lucky to have something as insightful and forward-thinking as James Blake
; we’re luckier still to have this one.