James Blake - Assume Form

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Last year, Mercury Prize winner James Blake took it upon himself to decry the “sad boy” tag he is often associated with. Although his music is melancholy in tone, Blake saw the glorification of sadness present in indie circles as entirely unhealthy and limiting to men with a need to be emotionally vulnerable and forthcoming. With his fourth studio album, James Blake opens himself up to the listener with a newfound transparency, no longer hiding behind the obliqueness of his previous outputs.

It may be tempting to crown Assume Form as James Blake’s pop album. It is undoubtedly brighter and immediate, but the transition to this is honest and refreshingly organic. James Blake is now far removed from the underground post-dubstep producer we saw in his 2011 debut. With his frequent collaborations with megastars, including a feature on Beyoncés Lemonade, Blake is a fully visible figure in music’s broader mainstream.

 Simply put, James Blake is not not the same person nor the same artist seen on the downcast The Colour in Anything from 2016. He is in love, and his thoughts and feelings are being funneled through the ups and downs of this relationship.

 The concept of Assume Form stands in opposition to Platonism. Blake wants to return to the physical, to leave his lofty ideals and return to a tangible appreciation of the here and now. On the album’s opening verse Blake states “Gone through the motions my whole life. I hope this is the first day that I connect motion to feeling.”

 James Blake has always been open to unsuspected collaborations. But with this latest record, he is truly explorative with who he partners with. Two tracks on this record feature production with trap star Metro Boomin. Mile High, his duet with rapper Travis Scott, shouldn’t work on paper. But Blake has always been a student of hip-hop going back with his relationship to Jay-Z. Travis Scott has a unique sense of melody that meshes with and accents Blake’s deconstructed RnB vocal style. On the very next track, also produced by Metro Boomin, Blake swaps lines with breakout soul artist Moses Sumney who gained wide name recognition after his performance with Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent at the Academy Awards.

Another breakout star that Blake finds space for on the tracklisting is Spanish art-pop and flamenco artist Rosalía who gained critical acclaim for her 2018 album El Mal Querer. The two singers showcase gorgeous chemistry on “Barefoot in the Park,” a ballad about the fusing of two souls who grow increasingly more familiar with one another as time goes by in a relationship.

The albums best song is the sparse and ghostly “Where’s the Catch.” James Blake’s voice is distorted with eerie vocal processing before giving the mic to legendary rapper André 3000. Andre tiptoes into his exceptional feature by informing the listener that “now this may be a little bit heady, and, y'know, I hate heady-ass verses.” When it comes time for his verse to take full steam, André unloads about his battles with depression and emotional unrest with furious wordplay and lyrical acrobatics. The most impressive bar: Come with me, come with me, calming me down. Be chamomile, calamine lotion. Camel motion, humpin' on the flo'.” Yeah, André 3000 is still one of the best wordsmiths in the game.

James Blake crafts this record with an impressive level of constraint, cohesiveness, and ambition. He blends various styles such as RnB, hip-hop, pop, electronica, and even hints of doo-wop on “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow.” Assume Form is remarkable in its humanity; an endearing and soul-searching affair by an artist who many considered had already reached his creative peak.

Grade: A-

Matt Marciniec