There’s a lot of animosity and panic when it comes to artists making more widely-appealing music than they have in the past. Regardless of how well the artist assimilates trendier ideas into their established sound, the term “sell out” is bound to be thrown around. There are some cases when this hostility turns out to be warranted, but there are other times when an artist utilises this change to make a logical progression to their sounds. James Blake’s latest album is certainly an example of the latter.
In more ways than one, Assume Form is Blake’s most accessible album yet. Not only are the songs here generally more direct and thicker in sound, but there’s a stronger sense of narrative – or, at the very least, recurring themes – than ever before on this album. Blake’s long-term relationship with actress Jameela Jamil is the focus of most of the songs here, making for some ridiculously adorable lyrical content. But there’s a larger concept at play which these love songs feed into – that being exiting a state of self-imposed seclusion to join the world around you. As Blake describes it, “the plan is to become reachable, to assume material form.”
This idea is illustrated most clearly on the album’s opener, which is also its title track. A delicate and somewhat uneasy piano melody opens the song before Blake enters, singing in a stream-of-consciousness style as the reverb-laced instrumentation depicts “the ether” that Blake mentions leaving. For an opening track, it wears a little too thin to be all that attention-grabbing (which is largely due to the incessant vocal sample in the song’s latter half), but it benefits from its string work as well as Blake’s gorgeous falsetto. What’s more, this track showcases an evolution of Blake’s distinctive brand of wistful, dejected, alternative R&B.
‘Into the Red’ continues this advancement with an equally stunning string section (it might as well be said now that the strings throughout the album are beautiful) and heavenly harmonies circulating around a bouncy synth ostinato. ‘Can’t Believe the Way We Flow’ sees the more ethereal side of Blake’s music fully-fledged in a dreamlike soundscape of Motown samples and rattling hip-hop percussion, highlighting Blake’s enamoured lyrics. ‘Are You in Love?’ is possibly the closest to ‘classic’ James Blake the album gets, with its buzzing arpeggios and subdued synth accompaniment being highly reminiscent of his first two albums. It’s definitely familiar territory, but it’s saved from being too predictable by some stellar vocal work and a woodwind-led climax.
Given the theme of removing one’s self from isolation that is central to a lot of the album’s content, it’s fitting that Assume Form is Blake’s most feature-heavy album yet. With the announcement of the album’s tracklist and guest artists came much concern among fans, largely due to the fact that famed producer Metro Boomin, one of the key players in the rise and continued dominance of the Atlanta-based trap sound, would be appearing on two tracks.
While the first of these two collaborations, ‘Mile High’, gracefully merges the dark, spacey trap that characterises much of Metro and guest vocalist Travis Scott’s work with Blake’s jittery synths and layered vocals, there’s not much to the track past this smooth blend and the pleasant atmosphere it creates. ‘Tell Them’, which also features Metro as well as Moses Sumney, is a far more interesting and progressive marriage of each artist’s respective sound, containing a spectral vocal performance from Sumney and topped with an eerie piano-led outro.
The features only get better from there: Andre 3000, as expected provides a densely worded and unbelievably hard-hitting verse on the album’s most pessimistic track, ‘Where’s the Catch?’. The song features a bizarre instrumental containing many contrasting passages and embellished by some off-putting sound effects. On ‘Barefoot in the Park’, ROSALÍA, who sounds right at home on a somewhat flamenco-tinged beat, provides an enchanting vocal performance that blends perfectly with Blake’s, making for an exceedingly alluring track.
For someone whose music is best known for being dismal, Blake pulls off the more optimistically affectionate side of things surprisingly well. The instrumental to ‘I’ll Come Too’ shines as the album’s most musically romantic moment, with a magical orchestral sample at its core. Its lyrics tell a relatable and charming tale of intense adoration of and devotion to the one you love. The album’s closer, ‘Lullaby for My Insomniac’, is also its mellowest track, being built around a hypnotic, slowly pulsating chord progression and ending with a mesmerising and almost cinematic acapella passage. ‘Power On’ is probably the simplest the album gets in both a musical and lyrical sense, but lines as sweet as “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone” make up for that in spades.
Despite the endearing love story that’s at the centre of Assume Form, the album’s best track may very well be its most disconsolate. ‘Don’t Miss It’ is far more candid than Blake’s usual musings on depression and loneliness, but by no means less compelling. An incredibly poignant piano loop drives the bulk of the song as a haunting vocal melody floats above it, before a Radiohead-esque chord progression takes the song to its peak. The lyrics are a devastating account of anxiety and constantly second-guessing everything.
To get personal for a moment, overthinking to the point of not being able to engage with the world around you is an experience that’s all too familiar to me, and the way Blake presents it on this track is nothing short of tear-inducing. It’s unquestionable that many other Blake fans would have experienced mental health struggles similar to his own, and thus ending the song with a promise that things will get better, as well as a plea not to “miss it” – it being, in the simplest sense, life – like he has, makes for the most powerful moment in his entire discography thus far.
It goes without saying that this album isn’t going to appease every James Blake diehard. Many will and have already understandably mourned the softening of his more abstract side. To me, however, there was only so far Blake could go with his dreary, indirect ballads before his music became tedious. Assume Form is a much clearer showcase of his diversity as an artist than his previous work. It’s Blake’s most vivid, emotional and human effort yet, and it’s all the better for it.