James Blake - Assume Form
by Evan Phillips
The last twelve months or so have been good to James Blake, the London-born producer extraordinaire who’s graced tracks from Kendrick Lamar, Bon Iver and Beyoncé with his signature brand of electronic melancholia. His rise to acclaim was instant after his self-titled debut in 2011 appeared in numerous end of year lists and, alongside The xx’s debut, provided a sparse, fluttering soundscape for indie teenagers to make out to. His most recent release, The Colour in Everything, left me cold, however; Blake’s persistent falsetto and spacey production seemed thoroughly overdone and, dare I say, a little boring. Now though, things have changed. Assume Form has kicked out that sullen introvert that occupied the centre of Blake’s previous works and things have gone a bit Nick Cave: he’s let love in.
Right out of the gate this change is palpable. You can feel it in the title track’s rolling piano arpeggio that rings jubilantly over crisp hi-hats and deep bass washes. ‘Gone through the motions my whole life’ sings Blake, ‘I hope this is the first day’ the upward turn in the lyrics as the instrumental blooms underneath him and eventually soars with lush strings as he proclaims ‘I will be touchable, I will be reachable’ like it’s a vow. The next two tracks bring the first of the album’s numerous high-profile features. Mile High sees Travis Scott taking centre stage with a modulated verse over a nimble Trap beat that intertwines with Blake’s own vocal that feels almost too close in the mix. Tell Them is equal parts personal and coolly detached. Moses Sumney’s sumptuous voice is the hook that pulls you into the gliding keys and shifting drum beats like neon and white light penetrating through night air.
Into The Red, with its autotuned vocal flourishes and the kind of restrained instrumental loop one might expect from Blake, wouldn’t sound out of place on 808s and Heartbreak and that, since you ask, is a good thing. Meanwhile Barefoot In The Park exemplifies once again Blake’s status and capability as a producer. An appearance from Rosalía, whose voice came to define the Pop-sphere in 2018, proves to be nothing short of spellbinding and their chemistry together on record is undeniable. Alternating between Spanish and English lines, Rosalía commands the percussion-heavy instrumental and weaves a sweet duet with Blake.
Where’s The Catch? offers the first moment of trepidation on an album which, until this moment, has been nothing short of giddy with the perfume of new love. A verse from Andre 3000 will always be something to look forward to, and despite his years away from the spotlight, he does not disappoint. ‘How many days of amazing will it be before it phases And I say I told you so?’ he asks, the counterpoint to Blake’s optimism that eventually recaptures the track with the stuttering refrain ‘everything’s rose now’. Single Don’t Miss It contains one of the album’s most haunting vocal lines that punctures the gentle acoustic piano and Blake’s fluttering vocals and urges the instrumental on in the latter half of the track. It’s another moment of caution, an instruction against waiting. It is quite breathtaking.
Assume Form closes with perhaps the most direct appeal to its protagonist, Blake’s partner and muse (although neither would probably agree with that term) Jameela Jamil, with Lullaby For My Insomniac. Chords emerge from the gloom and Blake’s vocals are once again at the centre of proceedings; flanked by his own backing vocals that intone chorus-like getting more prominent as the track goes on. ‘I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow’ the declaration of love and commitment that closes the album.
Having tentatively enjoyed some of his previous work, it really cannot be overstated just how much of a surprise Assume Form is and I can only speculate as to how much of a curveball it has been for more committed James Blake fans. Certainly the change of mood has, to my ears, done wonders for Blake’s songwriting and his production but there is no denying this is a lavish album in places and an ambitious one too. There are points in the second half that dull the euphoria of the first and some of Blake’s instrumental choices are overly familiar. Yet it is impossible to deny the frisson that Blake so evidently feels and the emotion that he has poured into the music on offer here; elevating his typically stoic electronic style into a heady opus full of light and texture.
It has been said that it is not fashionable to unironically love something (said by me, in fact) but I also maintain that I would rather hear an artist musically gush than to restrain themselves for the sake of popularity. Assume Form is boldly and unashamedly in love and it dares the listener to take that plunge too. If Blake can do it, then anyone can.