Books Editor Henry Crabtree reviews James Blake’s fourth album, Assume Form, in light of his earlier work; deciding that having finally ‘waved [his] fear of self’, Blake finds his greatest success in honesty and warmth.
From humble beginnings on synthesisers in his bedroom, James Blake might seem the unlikeliest superstar of 2019: humble, private, and unassuming. Yet delve a little deeper into the production credits and features of some of the world’s top artists and you’ll find one name plastered everywhere you look: James Blake.
His early work – electronica and fragmented synths on funky basslines – caught popular attention when championed by Radio 1 DJs, Gilles Peterson and Zane Lowe, and his debut, the eponymous James Blake, made the longlist for their Sound of 2011 list. Including the Feist cover “Limit to Your Love,” which set the tone for a crooning, piano-based sound that drew as much from electronic music as it does from powerful ballads. Covers of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and EPs followed before his second record, Overgrown. On this album, Blake attempted to find the balance between his nous for these ballads, which show off his distinctly classical talents with the ivory keys and his penchant for fragmented, synthesised and hip-hop clips. This resulted in an album that couldn’t quite find its feet. Caught between the melodic hums of “Retrograde” and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA’s distinct feature on “Take a Fall For Me,” Blake was struggling to reconcile these two compartmentalised styles. At the time, his Radio 1 Residency with 1-800-Dinosaur showcased his remixes under the alias Harmonimix and tended toward the post-dubstep styles of his first album.
At this time, Blake’s work steamrolled through critical acclaim like the 2013 Mercury Prize for Overgrown, beating favourites Laura Mvula and David Bowie to take the crown. A three-year gap ensued as fans waited for his third full-length studio album, grasping at releases on his Radio 1 Residency with urgency. Blake revealed that although the work began in England, he retreated to the U.S. to finish the record under producer-to-the-stars, Rick Rubin. A feature on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade on the song “Forward” cemented his place as a must-have voice for the more emotional songs on superstars’ albums.
The third album The Colour in Anything, released 2016, was purported to include a track with Kanye West, but this was cut from the final album to maintain its style; a brave decision from Blake to remove what would have been a highly-anticipated feature. Instead, the album continued in the veins of previous work: the angelic ‘I Need a Forest Fire’ (featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) and ‘The Colour in Anything’ provided the emotional power to sustain the album, though it was undercut by the discordant inclusion of Blakean-hallmark songs that alleviated the melodic ballads with sharp, dubstep rhythms. Akin to Overgrown, Blake couldn’t make the album a holistic and undivided piece; it grappled with the dual sides of his music and couldn’t quite achieve the heights of either side due to the discordant presence of the other.
Blake’s credits list grew ever longer between 2016 and late 2018, collaborating with Kendrick Lamar on “Element,” Frank Ocean on his visual album Endless, featuring with Travis Scott again on “Stop Trying to Be God” from Astroworld, and working with Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z on 4:44. Appearing in the music for the 2018 movie Black Panther on “King’s Dead” with Jay Rock and Future, and “Bloody Waters” with Ab-Soul and Anderson .Paak (under Lamar’s musical direction) was another in a long line of nods from titans of hip hop, rap, and pop music that Blake, though long typecast as music’s ‘sad boy,’ was capable of more. After the release of a single “Don’t Miss It’, which critics used as exemplifying this ‘sad’ image, Blake rightfully complained about media presentation of a toxic masculinity that stigmatised speaking about emotions. Calling it an ‘unhealthy and problematic’ stance, the artist warned media outlets that amongst an epidemic of depression and suicide amongst young people, that typecasting and deriding the emotional energy in music could lead to nothing good. His statement that ‘the road to mental health and happiness (…) is paved with honesty’ led the unashamed tweet; his fourth album lays a testament to his honesty.
Having moved to L.A. to work, and found stability with former Radio 1 DJ and current The Good Place star Jameela Jamil, Blake released his fourth full-length album, Assume Form, on the 18th January 2019. While earlier albums struck the tone of a lament for love lost, or missed, Assume Form is Blake let loose: a passionate and lively album that finally reconciles his two styles, with help from incredible features from Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, Moses Sumney, ROSALÍA, and André 3000. Blake, interviewed by Apple Music, insists that the album stems from the feeling of ‘ease of coexisting’ with his partner, and the parity of their feeling (a ‘joint account’) strikes an altogether different tone in his music than the unrequited love of albums past. “Into the Red” insists that even in ‘doing nothing, I am making the most of somehow’, a beautiful sentiment of internal validation and fulfilment he finds in his relationship with Jameela Jamil. The sweet, if not clichéd, image on this song that ‘By all means, she can get ahead of herself / (…) I’ll already be there to meet her’ works on this album through the raw emotion and intent behind it. The star turn on the album comes from ROSALÍA on “Barefoot in the Park”, a collaboration Blake chose due to the ‘vulnerable and raw and devastating’ quality of her voice. Despite the implicit worry one might assume from “Where’s the Catch?,” which would be a fair assumption given his previous albums, I believe this is Blake rising far from melancholy and into disbelief at his position and happiness. The outro, “Lullaby for My Insomniac,” fulfils best the parity of this love on display in the album, insisting that ‘I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow / If you do’.
With songs produced by fellow 1-800-Dinosaur members Dan Roat and Dominic Maker, the album’s various love songs build to a greater whole than their disparate parts. There is no song here that quite measures up to the beautiful sonics of ‘Retrograde’ or ‘Limit to Your Love’, or one that quite captures his mastery of electronic music like various pieces on the first album; yet, in the whole, there feels a sense that Blake has, as he states in the title of this work, ‘assumed form’. From the early albums’ artworks’ depictions of Blake blurred, or far away, or caricatured into a Quentin Blake sketch, ‘Assume Form’ features the artist centre stage, hands on his head, as if he can’t quite believe the success or the happiness he now feels that is so present on this warm, lovely album. He might not be able to comprehend it, let alone believe it, but we can.
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