James Blake – Assume Form
There are certain acts who always create intrigue when they release new material and James Blake is most definitely one of those artists. Whilst the falsetto vocals, electronics and intriguing beats are omnipresent in his work, his growth as an artist has seen him span genres and become as popular in the hip hop world as he is within the indie crowd that originally supported him. In a remarkably understated and underground way, he’s become an essential part of twenty-first century music.
The Penguin has been a fan since 2011, but was hugely disappointed by 2016’s The Colour In Anything, which was overly long and lacking in substance for his aquatic tastes. [Although it should be noted he wasn’t alone in 2016 in producing overly long, unimpressive albums: I’m looking at you Frank Ocean].
Last month Blake released Assume Form, and it has been on pretty steady repeat here ever since. For anyone who has listened to the album, it’s apparent that this is a very different James Blake; he is in love and – largely – a happy chappy. From the opening title track, it’s obvious he can barely believe his luck “When you touch me, I wonder what you would want with me” and the piano and soaring strings mirror his wide-eyed wonder. It’s a little soppy and slightly meandering start, but it begins our journey into Blake’s psyche.
Assume Form has a number of collaborators that help to elevate the album. Mile High, featuring Travis Scott, benefits from some superb production with the tinkering beats always teasing the ear, and the two voices mesh together nicely. Tell Them, a tale of regret about one night stands, is possibly a little overdone on the production, but Moses Sumney’s voice really shines. Barefoot in the Park with ROSALIA has been well covered on the blog is simply exquisite and continues the story of love woven throughout the album.
But it’s the collaboration with Andre 3000 – Where’s the Catch – that most rewards repeat listen and really anchors the album. With its unsettling, murky piano and deep beat, it turns the positives of the album on their head and questions if this really is too good to be true. It’s a dark moment cleverly placed within the album. And in truth it slightly saves the album, because the preceding two tracks – Can’t Believe The Way We Flow and Are You In Love? – are clearly the weakest on the album. The former is full of scatters of sound that never settle, and lyrically loses both the subtlety and quality that succeed elsewhere. With Are You In Love?, the vulnerability is there, but it feels meandering and slightly unnecessary.
Power On also jars slightly; it’s hard to know if we should be delighted for the person singing and appreciate their evolution into love, or whether they remain quite selfish company. Last year’s release Don’t Miss It also makes an appearance, a song with admirable emotional honesty but lacking in musical quality.
But there are other musical highlights intertwinned. Into The Red feels like it has a baroque arrangement involved and brings the strings back to centre stage. It’s an incredibly moving track in which he acknowledges a debt much greater than – but certainly not excluding – money. I’ll Come Too feels like Blake has hijacked a touring musical and appropriated its biggest number for his own. There’s a classic melodious pop song in there, but Blake gives it his own spin. And Lullaby For My Insomniac gives an almost choral ending to the album.
Assume Form is an enjoyable journey for the listener, with a central theme and some exquisite moments of musical genius. There are a few duds in there as well, but they’re generally well masked by how the album evolves around its thematic core. On that note, your tolerance for the album will largely depend on how much you can cope with Blake’s new-found happiness. The Penguin is also slightly in love with his other half after recently getting into The Good Place, so is happy to forgive, but others may struggle given how open and on-point the lyrics are at points.
At 48 minutes the album still feels a little baggy – lose two songs and we could be talking about a masterpiece – but its probably Blake’s finest album to date and shows yet more evolution. If anything, the intrigue will be even higher when his next release comes out.