ALBUM RELEASE: James Blake – ‘Assume Form’
WORDS BY TOM BRANFOOT
Multi-instrumentalist, singer, and producer James Blake’s 4th LP seems to provide a numbing acceptance to the plaguing and instinctual longing located within his unique brand of somber and reflective music. ‘Assume Form’ is a contented softening of the answerless intensity of his previous works and, as a result of being less emotionally devastating, allows both us to appreciate in a different manner and for Blake to explore foreign subjects and styles.
Although Blake has never shied away from rap music, (he even co-inhabited a mansion in L.A with Chance The Rapper in 2016) this album leaves a definitive sneaker-clad footprint in the aural realm, with features from Travis Scott, Metro Boomin and the legendary André 3000. The eponymous title track is a display of Blake’s poetic sensibilities, drifting atop piano motif’s and bit-crushed percussion. A classic James Blake blueprint song, with lyrics seemingly about re-materialising after a dark period of mental health and connecting with humans again. ‘Mile High’ sees Metro Boomin sharing production duties whilst Travis Scott soars above the liquid smooth beat with his melodically confident flow, albeit subdued in accordance with Blake’s signature vocal accompaniment.
A self-assured, late-night R&B track which feels as fresh as the rest of the album, even though it’s in keeping with a popular formula. ‘Tell Them’ features upcoming American soul singer Moses Sumney as well as co-producer Metro Boomin. With cues to earlier feature tracks such as ‘Life Round Here’ (featuring Chance The Rapper) however without the hard-hitting songwriting, including trademark synths and heavy beats with airy and glossy instrumentation, a vaguely forgettable track.
‘Into The Red’ feels like the McCartney/Lennon technique of incorporating two songs in one, however, if McCartney sounded like Bon Iver and Lennon sounded like Future. As Blake states on iTunes, this number is about a woman in his life “who put me before themselves and spent the last of their money on something for me. It was just a really beautiful sentiment”, the swelling crescendo in this song reflecting such a sentiment. Spanish, saintly-namesaked singer ROSALÍA adds a bilingual breeziness to this upbeat pop song, their vocals work wonderfully together over the mellifluously rolling beat.
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Opening with some sample splicing akin to Kanye, ‘Can’t Believe the Way We Flow’ surges into a gospel-style movement, cut off to allow room for Blake’s silver-smooth vocals to lay themselves down over, Blake taking hints from hip-hop production all throughout this number. ‘Are You in Love’ adapts the traditional James Blake formula, moving through jazz chords on a Prophet 8 synthesiser, billowing into a vocal layered, screaming soundscape, however quite lyrically simple – questioning the elephant in the room of a blossoming dalliance.
Three Stacks’ cameo on ‘Where’s The Catch?’ caught the eye of many hip-hop heads, a fitting beat, and dark piano motif, makes up the introduction with Blake, once again, talking about his new lover “we delayed the show we kissed so long”. The titular vocal riff sits over a searing guitar lick as André 3000 introduces his ‘heady verse’ which tackles paranoia and anxiety, (as does previous single ‘Don’t Miss It’) Three Stacks’ verse showcases his legendary flow with impressive an array of assonance and consonance. The track rolls out with the comforting notion that “everything is rosy”, a noticeable departure from the emotional dirge’s on his previous records.
Personal highlight ‘I’ll Come Too’ is a touching straight forward song, musing on wanting to follow your lover everywhere they go “I don’t want to go home/should we drive from zone to zone”, tackling the obsessive power of love through the language of men opposed to the poeticisms of ‘Assume Form’. ‘Don’t Miss It’ surfaced a few months ago but, here, Blake gives a rundown through what this egomaniacal and anxiety-ridden track is about: “moments I (sic) didn’t enjoy when I should have/Love’s I wasn’t a part of/Heroes I met that I can’t remember the feeling of meeting/Because I was so wrapped up in myself” using his trademark pitched up and spliced vocals. Album finishing ‘Lullaby for My Insomniac’ brings an oceanic blanketing to the record with a choir of vocals and falling pads.
‘Assume Form’ is a grounded and assured body of work, considerably less left-field and refines the ‘James Blake’ formula with a stronger magnetic leaning to rap music. However, these songs lack the emotional intensity of Blake’s previous records, and songs such as ‘Radio Silence’ or ‘Retrograde’, ditching the spaciously monstrous instrumentation for more subdued R&B beats. With some forgettable songs, such as ‘Power On’, ‘Tell Them’ and ‘Are You In Love?’, this album feels lackluster at times, however, it serves as an important record in the progression of James Blake’s music.