Thursday 16 November 2023

Review of 'Playing Robots Into Heaven' by James Blake

After a decade of ethereal ballads, James Blake returns to his roots and delivers some exciting experimental EDM.

Wasn’t this the guy who released ‘You’re Beautiful’? No, that’s James Blunt. Oh, yes, that’s right, James Blake was the long-haired dude with the fedora who wrote ‘Hold Back The River’, right? No, that’s James Bay! So, who is James Blake??

Well, he’s definitely the most interesting of all the James Bs. Since his 2011 self-titled debut album, his music has consisted largely of ballads sung in a haunting choirboy voice over ghostly backdrops of electronica. There was a brief moment when he decided to get cheerier and more commercial - but thankfully it was short-lived, and his last album Friends That Break Your Heart returned to a weirder and bleaker sound.

What a lot of people don’t realise about James Blake is that he had quite a different sound before his debut album. In fact, his initial EPs were made up of wacky post-dubstep tunes with digitally mangled vocals. Playing Robots Into Heaven is a return to this experimental electronic sound – and it feels much needed in 2023 (where has all the experimental electronica gone? There was so much of it 10 years ago).

The album eases you in with melodic trip-hop opener ‘Asking To Break’, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to something you might hear on a recent James Blake album. However, you can tell a weirder side of Blake is loading on warped house cut ‘Loading’. Third track ‘Tell Me’, which sounds like a mix of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ and the internet dial-up sound, fully embraces this warped house music direction, which ‘Fall Back’ continues to hurtle down.

Blake changes the pace and continues to get more bizarre on ‘He’s Been Wonderful’ – a glitchy trap song with a with a polyrhythmic ‘one, two, three’ sample accompanying its 4/4 beat to keep you off-balance. Following track ‘Big Hammer’ is another trap banger with a more sinister Gesaffelstein vibe and no vocals from Blake whatsoever (I’m pretty sure that’s not him rapping in patois). This is followed up by a moody garage track ‘I Want You To Know’, after which the album truly ventures down the rabbit hole with woozy genre-defying trip ‘Night Sky’.

Fans who prefer Blake’s singer-songwriter side to his EDM producer side are likely to abandon ship by this point in the album. However, it’s at this exact point in the tracklist that Blake takes a break from experimental electronica to deliver two actual songs, ‘Fire the Editor’ and ‘If You Can Hear Me’. As much as I love the experimental electronic direction of this record, it’s reassuring to hear that Blake hasn’t completely turned his back on his singer-songwriter side. After all, he’s a talented singer and lyricist. ‘If You Can Hear Me’ ends up being a particularly touching ballad (which I assumed was a song to his dead father – but his dad is actually still alive) and it could have been a moving way to finish the album. However, instead the record closes with avant-garde self-titled instrumental ‘Playing Robots Into Heaven’, choosing to end on a weird note.

Is there an overarching theme to this album? I thought that given the title there might have been some AI uprising theme or something, but I don't think there is a theme - which is my one major complaint with this album given that Blake's last two albums both has such strong themes. Nonetheless, Playing Robots Into Heaven is still a blast. It shows off Blake's versatility, the tracks all flow well and it's one of the few electronic records this year that feels both deranged and danceable.