James Blake: Assume Form
By John Martin
When “Don’t Miss It” was released as a single in May of last year, it came as a reflection of James Blake’s past and a harbinger for the future of his music. A lone hi-hat ticks like a metronome as immersive piano chords propel the song forward. Blake’s trademark vocal distortion remains, though the track leans a little further into his pop sensibilities than normal. And as always, the song’s lyrics are deeply self-critical, this time reflecting on how introspection and reclusion can border on narcissism if left unchecked. It sounded like this version of Blake had come to regret past preconceptions and was ready to feel something else. With the advent of Assume Form, it’s clear that he now has new emotions on his mind. While his expansive 2016 album The Colour In Anything dared listeners to bask in their sorrows as Blake did the same, Assume Form is a celebration of newfound love.
Now in a relationship with actress and DJ Jameela Jamil, probably best known for her role as Tahani on The Good Place, the album reflects the immense change in his outlook. On “I’ll Come Too” Blake effortlessly sings “I've got nothing to lose/With you, with you, with you/I'm in that kind of mood” over a sweeping string section and silky doo-wop backing vocals. Earlier in the album, he flips a seventies soul sample from The Manhattans on standout track “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow,” where his frail falsetto feels just as equipped to express love as it is to express sorrow. The songwriting on tracks like “Power On” is influenced by times gone by, giving them a feeling of nostalgia while also sounding timeless. Who would have thought the same man who put forth some of the most desolate music I’ve ever heard could repurpose his melodic talents for songs that sound so carefree.
He emerges from isolation and starts to embrace interconnectedness, perhaps best embodied by the volume of guest artists on the album. Recently, James Blake increased his name recognition by collaborating with high profile artists like Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, and many more. The features on Assume Form are a logical next horizon; as he makes space in his life for another person, he makes space in his music for other voices. After Blake pitched in vocals for “STOP TRYING TO BE GOD” on ASTROWORLD, Travis Scott returns the favor on “Mile High,” a chilled out banger that somehow makes joining the mile high club sound romantic. Much credit is due to Metro Boomin’ whose hard hitting trap production on this song and “Tell Them,” seemingly out of place on a James Blake album, successfully diversifies the overall feeling of Assume Form. “Barefoot In the Park” is a lovelorn ballad which finds Blake trading verses in Spanish and English with emotive Catalan vocalist, Rosalía. He even enlists Andre 3000 for a wildly imaginative verse on “Where’s the Catch”.
James Blake has come a long way from his 2011 self-titled album, which saw him weaving together solemn tracks out of sparse, icy instrumentals and distorted loops, semi-ironically referred to as “blubstep.” It was an electronic confessional, contradictory in that his personal truths were on display while still managing to hold the audience at a distance. On Assume Form, Blake tears down all barriers between himself and the listener. He’s done away with the modulation and experimentation (to a certain extent) and crafted an album that feels inviting, even at its coldest moments like the stately choral hymn, “Lullaby For My Insomniac.” It’s also important to note that this is the first album cover where his face is clearly visible, not obscured or hidden from view. For the first time, it feels like James Blake is asking to be seen.
The title track, “Assume Form,” also touches on this idea (“I will assume form/I'll be out of my head this time”). Over warm piano chords and unsurprisingly immaculate production, Blake expresses a desire to experience life in the first person, no longer lost in his internal monologue or viewing the world from above. In the past, James Blake has been referred to as a ‘sad boy,’ a term which he has publicly denounced as pejorative to men who speak openly about their feelings in a climate where male suicide and depression is often overlooked. For a man who built a career out of knotty expression of desperation and isolation, love has given him an external tether and a new source of creative inspiration. In his own words, “I wouldn't do this on my own/But I'm not on my own tonight”.