Album Review: James Blake’s ‘Assume Form’

The London R&B producer uncovers the warm, beating heart under the icy surface of his music on his best, most personal record to date.
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James Blake's Assume Form
Polydor Records

Artist: James Blake

Album Title: Assume Form

Label: Polydor

Release Date: Jan. 18, 2019

When James Blake’s eponymous debut arrived in 2011, the London-based producer turned heads and blew minds with his stunning, devastatingly minimalist fusion of post-dubstep and robotic R&B–a sound seemingly beamed in from an alien dimension. His next two records–2013’s Overgrown and 2016’s The Colour in Anything–further explored and capitalized upon his R&B sensibilities and mellifluous vocal stylings.

With Assume Form, Blake demonstrates the most fully-realized refinement of his songcraft thus far. He simultaneously broadens and sharpens his sonic and scope and, in the process, uncovers the warm, beating heart beneath the icy surface of his music. The end result is a glorious aural whirlwind–the most gripping, personal work Blake has ever produced. It feels like his entire career has been building up to this moment, and the payoff for both him and us is exponential.

The record kicks off with the title track, a gauzy, meditative number that opens with sprightly piano flourishes atop a wave of haze. You envision yourself floating above yourself within the “ether” Blake speaks of–lost in your thoughts and anxieties, just barely conscious of your surroundings. As the track continues, though, it slowly gains momentum, the empty spaces filling with layered vocals and sumptuous strings–the sound growing fuller and more inviting. “I will assume form, I’ll leave the ether,” Blake croons in his inimitable broken falsetto, “I’ll be out of my head this time / I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable / I couldn’t tell you where my head goes either.” As far as stripping a track back to its most basic, skeletal elements goes, Blake remains one of our true modern masters. He does so much with so little in a way none of his peers can.

Thus Blake illustrates his own attempts at a journey from an inward-facing existence to an active, deliberate experience of life–specifically, his love life. This narrative thread flows through much of Assume Form, and the guest artists he employs help him further examine his own feelings of depression and disconnect.

“Mile High,” a collaboration with two of the biggest stars of late ’10s hip-hop about sex on an airplane. Metro Boomin assists Blake in enveloping the track in an intimate, low-key trap vibe with an ethereal flute loop. Travis Scott brilliantly evokes the mood of drugged-out ecstasy with his disarmingly simple verses (“We on a drive, looped in / Two seat ride, couped in / Who gonna slide, who’s in / Big rocks, round of ten…Rollin’ up out the reef / Put me down, straight to sleep”); his and Blake’s voices intertwine in the refrain, spiraling towards the heavens like an early-morning flight.

Metro returns for the spacy, twinkling “Tell Them,” which depicts the strange mix of passion and detachment associated with a one-night stand. The otherworldly, ancient-sounding quaver of Moses Sumney floats through the song, acting as the voice of Blake’s soul: “Can’t return the sacred time you steal / A fact betrays the way you feel…” Andre 3000 lends a nervous, acrobatic verse to the marimba-synth-feedback-hiss of “Where’s the Catch?” In Spanish avant-flamenco chanteuse Rosalía Vila Tobella, Blake just may have met his match in terms of heartbreaking subtlety; her shivery, flinty vocals perfectly complement his own on the haunting “Barefoot in the Park.”

Some of the most beautiful moments on Assume Form, however, come when Blake works through these issues on his own. As Blake continues to move towards a sense of connection to reality, the tracks begin to center more on his new relationship with The Good Place star Jameela Jamil and the intense passion they feel for one another.

“Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” forms a perfect, rapturous paean to this kind of intimate connection using a gorgeous, Pet Sounds-esque collage of expertly-layered sounds and vocal samples from an old Manhattans cut. The swoony, daydreamy sweetness of the almost Tin Pan Alley-like “I’ll Come Too” embodies the feeling of being head-over-heels in love with someone, wanting to be with them everywhere they go (“I don’t wanna go home / Shall we drive from zone to zone? / I wouldn’t do this on my own / But I’m not on my own tonight”). The fluttering strings, woodwinds, and harmonies that vibrate throughout “Power On” create the feel of a lovestruck paradise–a safe place where he and his beloved can go to “talk shit about everyone.”

The record comes to a quiet, graceful, and poignant close with its pair of preceding singles. On “Don’t Miss It,” Blake’s wobbly AutoTune rides a sparse piano track with ghostly vibrato vocals as he reflects on how avoiding what causes him distress might make his life easier, but would also make him miss out on much of life itself. Soothing towers of “aaahhhs” and slowly pulsating synths permeate appropriately-nocturnal closer “Lullaby for My Insomniac.” Blake soothes his restless lover, promising to spend the night by her side: “I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow / If you do.”

Assume Form is a gorgeous, methodical exercise in impassioned restraint, bathed in half-remembered dreams and visions of love–effortlessly hip, borne of a quiet mystique. It’s the work of an artist in full command of his powers. May Blake continue finding his way towards a life better lived–and may he inspire the rest of us to do the same.

Rating: 8.6/10

Best Tracks: “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”, “I’ll Come Too”, “Lullaby for My Insomniac”

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