James Blake’s ‘Assume Form:’ lullabies and lapses of distrust

February 1, 2019

“Are you in love?” Someone is. UK producer, singer, songwriter, tall guy, potential alien life form, James Blake. His fourth album immerses you in his head as he tries to process his relationship. Blake made a name for himself with his eponymous debut album, and sophomore effort “Overgrown” had a cutting edge sound and sharp, abstract songwriting to compliment. His third album, “The Colour in Anything,” is decent but felt like a step backwards for Blake. Since May 2016, most of his work has been featuring and producing songs for other artists such as Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Vince Staples, Jay Z and Travis Scott. By no means has the artist been quiet, but on his first solo project in nearly three years, Blake sounds a bit different. While this album has the potential to leave Blake’s fans missing some of his music’s identifying features, it offers a clearer and more vulnerable look into his psyche.

Mostly gone on this project are Blake’s abstract style of songwriting and beats that would slowly build into cacophonous yet euphoric peaks like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Every Day I Ran.” Instead the songs on “Assume Form” are much more stripped back. Quieter songs carried by Blake’s falsetto have always been one of his strengths and on this project he leans into that much more heavily. An additional curve ball on this project is the production from Metro Boomin towards the front of the record. These collaborations have mixed results with the first of the two “Mile High” leaving some to be desired, especially from Travis Scott on his feature, but “Tell Them” is a nocturnal ballad with a great beat and Moses Sumney feature.

Blake has never been more direct than he is on this album either. Here we are given stunningly beautiful love songs like “Barefoot in the Park” and “I’ll Come Too” where Blake is more open about his feelings than he has ever been. The former, assisted by Rosalía’s gorgeous vocals, is a lovely duet where Blake and his beloved are so consumed in their admiration that they want to absorb each other “like the river goes to the sea”. Blake is endearingly vulnerable in “I’ll Come Too” where he offers to follow his lover no matter where they are going, be it New York, LA or “the brink” and alludes to Yung Lean’s feature on Blonde’s “Self Control.” On “Lullaby for My Insomniac,” Blake pledges to stay awake until his lover is able to fall asleep over a lonely, slow pulsating bass.

Not everything is roses though. “Where’s the Catch?” featuring Andre 3000 is a knee jerk reaction of self-doubt and distrust. On the track Blake and Andre Benjamin show a side of themselves that thinks they are undeserving and perhaps being set up. “Don’t Miss It” is a retrospective where Blake looks back at his struggles with depression and his partner’s role in bringing him out of it. The song is quiet and dark (once again relying mostly on Blake’ vocals) but strikes an optimistic note towards the end of the track.
On “Mile High,” Blake says that “less is always more” and unintentionally summarizes everything that works about this album. The listener is placed right in the middle of a world where there is only Blake and his lover. There is only I, You and We; others only seem to exist as some shapeless being. Sonically, he does more with less, keeping things quiet and the focus on him and what he has to say. What Blake has to say is a more forward and more raw expression of his emotions. This album is personal in a way that Blake’s other records aren’t and I think that is something to be excited about now and going forward.

One last thing: Pitchfork’s review of this album accuses it of being too “solipsistic” and counts out the number of times Blake says “I” on the record. Now … accusing an artist of portraying a relationship, past or present, in a self-absorbed fashion is fair. But that’s not really what’s going on here. Most of this accusation is that Blake says “I” over 200 times. But we shouldn’t ask artists to make their art impersonal. Creating art is a personal experience and writing is a personal transaction. Say “I” as much as you want. Go visit your old English teacher and give them the finger.

“Assume Form” is a nice return to the quality of Blake’s first two albums, after the lull from “The Colour in Everything.” It’ll make you feel warmer on a winter’s day and convince you that beauty can exist anywhere, even in Waltham in February.

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