James Blake came up making fascinatingly busy electronic instrumentals, before his Feist cover revealed he possessed a unique and otherworldly voice, and he began to cross over as a smooth soul/cabaret crooner, subsequently becoming an in-demand producer and collaborator to the stars. His most recent LP, 2016’s sprawling The Colour in Anything, had a markedly lower hit ratio than his Mercury Prize-winning previous outing Overgrown, and perhaps as a reaction to that, he’s returned with the most taut and accessible release of his career in Assume Form.
Blake’s sound retains its urbane, classy appeal--low-key, rhythmic and deep-bottomed tracks and vocals that bloom into pop melodies, but like those of his influence Joni Mitchell, locate enough harmonic interest to avoid lazy schlockiness. His tunes sound great soundtracking dinner parties and study sessions, but they’re still too subtle and weird to make fans worry that he’ll go Sam Smith on us.
On Assume Form, Blake doesn’t just streamline album length (a no-filler 48 minutes) and sonic scope (eschewing instrumental interludes and excursions like between-albums single “If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead”), but also narrows the narrative focus of his songwriting, presenting his take on the pop staple, the “falling in love album.” He repeatedly announces his intention to his lover (and presumably to his listeners) to be more emotionally unguarded, to not obfuscate his feelings behind coded or obtuse wordplay. We’re drawn in by his resolution on the opening title track with “I'll leave the ether/I will assume form, I'll be out of my head this time,” and on album centerpiece and big swoony choon “I’ll Come Too” he reasserts “I'm gonna say what I need/If it’s the last thing I do.”
If you’re looking for a solid little Valentine’s Day gift for your sweet thing next month, a physical copy of this album is a safe bet, as the mushy-gushy level gets pretty high, particularly on the midpoint one-two punch of “Barefoot in the Park” (Blake’s duet with future-flamenco wunderkind Rosalía) and the trip-hop rapture “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow.” But as with many a new love for smart and sensitive types, Blake is careful to periodically pinch himself as doubt and distrust of love creep in. Needing reassurance, he prayerfully asks “Are You In Love?” before straight-up asking “Where’s the Catch?” on a late-album highlight wherein he scores an increasingly infrequent but typically head-spinning guest verse from Andre 3000.
The “falling in love album” could reasonably be viewed as trite or inconsequential in our current cultural climate (sheesh, so tired of writing phrases like that--okay if I just use “our CCC” from here on out?), and on the album’s climax, “Don’t Miss It,” Blake is aware of this, throwing out some funny self-interrogating lines early in the song (“Everything is about me/I am the most important thing”). But despite individual human love looking like a not-global-enough concern, “Don’t Miss It”encourages us not to devalue its wonders and miraculousness. Blake, having had to defend the track from pitchforks of “sad boy music,” further unpacks it as the LP’s “mission statement” (in Form’s iTunes liner notes): “Yes, there are millions of things that I could fixate on, and I have lost years and years and years to anxiety. There are big chunks of my life I can’t remember—moments I didn’t enjoy when I should have. Loves I wasn’t a part of.” Assuming form, falling in love, cherishing the soulful, sensual and emotional moments of life--these aren’t “sad boy” things, they’re joyful things, and in encapsulating them in a beautiful, modern, yet classic-sounding setting, James Blake may just have made a masterpiece.
Catch up with the back catalogue of James Blake via his entry in our In Five Songs series.