Monday 11 February 2019

Review of 'Assume Form' by James Blake

James Blake’s new album is soppier and poppier - and sadly less enjoyable.

I remember the chills I experienced the first time I heard James Blake’s debut in 2011. The sound of his ghostly whimpered voice cracking over skeletal electronica was absolutely haunting. Lyrics like ‘I’m falling, falling, falling…’ were vividly gloomy, whilst tracks like ‘Unluck’ were experimental (if not slightly pretentious, but still interesting).

Now almost a decade on and several albums later, James Blake has assumed a new form on ‘Assume Form’. He’s no longer a charmingly tortured mess – instead he’s disappointingly happy and loved up. Many of the tracks are romantic ballads for his partner with mushy titles such as ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’. He’s also gone more commercial – ‘Mile High’ sees him rapping alongside Travis Scott, whilst ‘Barefoot in the Park’ sees him dipping his toes into Latin pop (it’s not quite ‘Despacito’, but it’s Latin and poppy enough to not sound like James Blake).

There’s also a sense of intimacy missing from this album. On his past works, Blake made you feel like it was just you and him alone in a room (‘Ignore everybody else/ We’re alone now’, to quote his incredible 2014 single ‘Retrograde’). On Assume Form, he feels miles away as he sings ‘I will be reachable’ on the opener – it sounds like the beginning of some out of office reply.

This isn’t always the case. There are some moments where Blake feels more connected to the listener. Unfortunately, the vocal guests that he’s invited along tend to get in the way. ‘Mile High’ for instance could have been a seductive sex song about making love at 35,000 ft, but Travis Scott gets involved making it feel like an unwanted threesome.

Towards the end there are less guests and less attempts at pop appeal – it’s here that Blake’s intimacy makes a true return and we get some of the best tracks on the album. Penultimate track ‘Don’t Miss It’ sees him recounting the vulnerability he felt in his past over detuned pianos. Gorgeous closer ‘Lullaby for my Insomniac’ meanwhile features a bare backdrop of synth swells that morph into heavenly chanting, topped with lyrics about staying up with his partner because she cannot sleep. Even if the latter is the soppiest track on the album, both songs made me feel that Blake was finally back in the room caressing me with his voice. No distant ‘I will be reachable’ lines or Travis Scott threesomes or unwanted excursions into Latin pop.

I wish that all the tracks were like these final tracks. As it stands, the rest of the album isn’t bad – it’s pleasant and that’s about it. I don’t want to wish heartbreak on James Blake as that isn’t why his music is less exciting – he just needs to work on building back his relationship with the listener.