Arguably the first release with major hype of 2019, and you bet I was excited for it too. He’s always been an innovator, of contemporary music and himself. Always someone who takes risks and pushes his sound ahead of the curve. James Blake returns in early 2019 with his new full length album, after a handful of features and singles. Compared to his latest album from 2016, ‘Assume Form’ is marked by clarity and explores insecurity, desire and acceptance. Blake al
His production is divine already on the intro track that titles the album. Strings are barely allowed to soar while a piano climbs and is chopped up and plays its uplifting chords darkly. James sets out the themes he will treat throughout the album, making sure that the listener knows to expect something focused and romantic.
Blake has been featuring in trap songs for a while, always ready to give the sometimes one-dimensional genre an artsy edge. On ‘Assume Form’ he teams up with the infamous Metro Boomin twice. It results once in a slow and love-high track with vocal additions from Travis Scott, and the other time in a more sultry and fast-paced Arabic flavoured cut with Moses Sumney.
James comes across less patient than usual on ‘Assume Form’, but that’s not a bad thing. Most of the songs don’t rely on repetition-induced hypnosis like on much of ‘The Colour in Anything’, instead they are more dynamic and brighter, with both themes and context morphing continuously. James knows what he wants to say and doesn’t waste any time getting to the point.
I will admit that, starting with track 5, the album momentarily loses some of its edge for me. Despite Rosalía’s beautiful voice, the verses on ‘Barefoot in the Park’ aren’t very compelling to me, and the hook in the chorus is sadly a little boring and the instrumental does little to make up for it.
‘Are You Alive’ never really flourishes, like the unsure relationship James Blake seems to be describing. A beat is implied, but never comes, and when the strings finally add that much-needed airy width, the song ends. It’s almost frustrating but does a stellar job at strengthening the meaning of Blake’s words.
The glitchy production on the first minute of ‘Where’s The Catch’ is impressive, but the rest of the track eludes me somewhat. It’s almost a sinister club track, with its house beat and dark blue sound design. In my opinion, the instrumental doesn’t complement André 3000’s flows all that well.
‘Assume Form’ has Blake describe the process of falling in love earnestly and from a multifaceted perspective. The insecurity, infatuation and importance of accessibility are emphasised on tracks 9 and 10. These songs come closer to a ‘traditional’ love song than most James Blake songs, and it’s actually delightful to hear him sing so clear headedly about his experience with love over the past years.
Overall, Blake seems optimistic, his lyrics radiate a sense of freedom and directness while still retaining their cryptic, exploratory edge. The sporadic use of strings helps here, expanding the atmosphere and offering the listener a clearer look inside Blake’s mind. ‘Assume Form’ asserts itself here, and I can’t help to think back to the release of ‘Don’t Miss It’, when Blake issued a statement about his dislike of the term ‘sad boy’, and its associations to his music. The track remains a favourite for me, skeletal in production like so many of Blake’s strongest work, and with a message that he conveys so perfectly that I think it can resonate with almost anyone in some way.
The outro track is suddenly about insomnia; mainly James’ voice plus a little synthesizer, and I find myself drifting away on the harmonies he sets up, allowing the many new thoughts conjured by this album to settle quietly in my brain and figure themselves out. A fitting closer for a remarkable album.