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Album of the Week: 'Assume Form' - James Blake
23rd January 2019
'I will assume form; I'll leave the ether', croons 30-year-old James Blake in the opening track of his new album, Assume Form. It's a fitting summary for the genesis of this album; out of the confusing ether of 2016's The Colour in Anything arises a bold, artistic statement from Blake. The Colour in Anything was a tepid palette of emotions in a muddled haze of synths; now, Blake expands upon this emotional range and musical identity with pride and vibrancy. The track begins with a starry piano and a metronomic beat, whilst he sings about his past days as ‘gone through the motions my whole life’ and embracing days where he already feels warmer ‘just knowing the sun will be out’. The melodies are still soulful, the production sparse: all that’s changed is that Blake is happier.
This leaves us with the question: Who exactly is James Blake without his melancholia? For his identity has long been established as a ‘sad boy’ (something he hit out against after the release of the track ‘Don’t Miss It’). Luckily, Blake is able to answer this question, fusing his hip-hop and soul influences into a newly loved-up persona that demonstrates his musical talent as a lyricist, singer and producer.
The album’s strengths lie in Blake’s ability to maintain his originality with heartfelt sentiments universal to everyone, primarily by using this strategy of consistent production combined with touching poetry. ‘Into The Red’ opens with a lush string section, but somehow this never translates as cheesy or cloying. Contrasting the AutoTune-tinged vocals and delicate melody with lyrics such as ‘she was the gold rush’ allows Blake to enter a new sphere of emotional range whilst accenting his hip-hop background. The same could be said for one of my favourites, ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’, which dips into the pitch-modulated samples that Blake sustains throughout the album and waxes poetic about the easiness of Blake’s love. Even ‘I’ll Come Too’ initially sounds like it could have come off his debut album, then diving into the skittering beats and ghostly vocal samples lingering in the background. Even the decision to question this love balances the tone of the album to prevent it from becoming too sickly. ‘Are You In Love?’ describes the anxiety of needing reassurance of a partner’s love; ‘Don’t Miss It’ continues this anxiety in a more general, social sense. Blake balances the potential mundanity of a piano ballad by modulating the piano, as well as his vocals. Although the song never really reaches a dramatic climax, the quiet wavering instrumentation mimics the distorted worldview the speaker possesses as he recesses inwards further and further. Ultimately, these elements of Blake’s identity root the album’s ballads firmly in his musical identity in a way that makes sense but allows room for growth and experimentation with his happiness.
The real test of Blake’s identity cohesion comes in the form of his collaborations. What better way to prove that you’ve assumed form than integrating other styles whilst still making it clear it’s your song? This fusion of James Blake production and his fellow collaborators is successful – but to a certain extent. Arguably the least interesting of the four collaborated songs is ‘Mile High’ (ft. Travis Scott & Metro Boomin). Thematically, the song doesn’t fit with the album, and it sounds more like a Rodeo-era cut than any James Blake’s songs. That’s not to say that trap doesn’t fit Blake; ‘Tell Them’ (Moses Sumney & Metro Boomin) proves to be the better track, with its more upbeat and bouncy melody, complex beats and stunning vocals from Sumney. ‘Where’s The Catch?’ (ft. Andre 3000) is one of the more sombre tracks, but Blake does good work interspersing his piano riffs with Andre’s verse. Andre’s feature is the true highlight of the track, using complex interlinear rhymes and rapping about his mental health problems, which is juxtaposed nicely with Blake’s minimalist poetry.
But the true standout on the album is the gorgeous ‘Barefoot In The Park’, which sees Blake collaborate with Catalonian star Rosalía. This track could have been a train wreck; Blake’s electronic minimalism is not the most likely candidate for Rosalía’s flamenco-tinged work. But the two artists do share similarities across their ouvres; a strong R&B sensibility, emotional tenderness and musical experimentation, to name but a few. Blake wisely doubles down on these similarities, electing Rosalía to sing in her native Spanish, as her soft voice weaves in and out of Blake’s own sharper vocals. There’s still hints of each of their own personal musical identities. Soft, muted flamenco guitars can be heard in the background, whilst flamenco rhythms are incorporated subtly. This fits in with the rhythmic complexity of Blake’s work in the album whilst still paying homage to Rosalía’s style. Blake’s vocal sampling is also present, as well as the minimalist production that he’s known for. But it’s the lyrics that really impress me. Blake speaks of walking in the park, and you get the sense that he’s gradually falling in love as he walks side-by-side. The line ‘Who needs balance when I see you every day?’ is especially poignant, and it’s a sweet renunciation of typical dating formalities of keeping distance.
Ultimately, the album is a testament to how thoroughly Blake understands his music, and how well he can sing, produce and write. Blake’s happiness and peace is a welcome change, and hopefully, it’ll stick around in his work for a while.
- Image courtesy of Amanda Charchian