With the release of his fourth studio album, London’s very own electro-soul, avant-crooner, James Blake, displays his personal and sonic evolution through an upbeat, self-reflective love letter to his partner, Jameela Jamil, of NBC’s The Good Place. Though it appears to be a simple declaration of newfound love and happiness, the record’s latent self-awareness provides us with sharply contrasting motifs which reveal the projects veiled complexity.
The single, Don’t Miss It, released in late 2018 on Polydor Records, teased a more self-aware, mature and polished Blake, but Assume Form brings our understanding of Blake’s sonic and personal temperaments to new heights.
The record boasts the intricacies of falling in love, of getting out of one’s own head and into one’s own body, and thus: assuming material form in the real world. These motifs unfold over cold, electronic atmospheres and clean, minimal production from the likes of Blake, Dominic Maker of Mount Kimbie, Dan Foat, Dre Moon, Wavey, and most surprisingly, Metro Boomin’.
The cover art also speaks to the newfound, clear headspace we’re being introduced to. Gone are the faded, drab and drooling watercolor paintings and the hazily obscured portraits which have previously donned his records. Now we see him directly addressing the audience, bathed in warm light, and dressed in an earthy green, velour-like button down, appearing comfortable with seeing, and being seen.
Previously, he’s received a bit of criticism for shying away from the colorful club scene and providing a sound that’s been a bit too melancholic to taste, however, these critiques of his music appear to be at best, unimaginative, personal slights and at worst, rushed, two dimensional evaluations.
The additional criticism Blake’s received for Assume Form should be seen for what it is: fear with a platform. And what do we do when we’re afraid? We avoid, we skim, and we make snap judgements. What’s the worth of a review that is rushed? The negative critiques appear to be written by someone who hasn’t been bothered to listen to the project at least once all the way through, considering that Assume Form is not a ‘bogged down’, unrecognizable product of James Blake. The concise, 12-track project delivers the same glitchy, angelic falsetto, situated amidst minimal drums, looped, choral synthscapes and other repetitive elements that we’ve come to associate and expect from a Blake record.
One of the more jarring, although welcomed, aspects of this new direction is the lack of lyrical abstractions and poetic repetitiousness normally found within Blake’s songwriting canon. I’m used to Blake songs feeling fleeting and trancelike, as if they’re unfinished sonic sketches one saves in their voice notes folder.
Consider Voyeur off his 2nd studio album, Overgrown, which features about 7 obscured lines that repeat hypnotically throughout the track, as Blake takes listeners on a heavily textured, shapeshifting, synth-laden voyage. The lyrics here feel purposely obscured, providing the audience enough space to make their own inferences on the words and their meaning. I still find myself singing: “and her mind was on me,” or, “I don’t mind, it was all me.” For me, it doesn’t really matter what the lines were: the song slapped, and clearly has held up over time. Similarly, on I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix) from his 3rd studio album, The Colour in Anything, he stretches 8 unique lines into an almost six-minute track: the four-on-the-floor beat slides into a 2-step garage rhythm and doubles back, while the synthscape continuously coalesces and shifts around his pleading vocals.
On Assume Form, Blake is clearer and more concise than ever. He retains his excellent use of metaphors and analogies, but he doesn’t hide behind them, or force us to search for meaning. He tells us the truth at once, with ease and confidence: “I will assume form, I’ll leave the ether… I will be touchable, I will be reachable.”
What’s most interesting though, is the direction his contemporaries end up taking in their featured verses. Travis Scott’s verse on Mile High isn’t particularly memorable for its lyrical content (none of us are listening to Travis for that, anyway), but the song ends up holding its weight on the album due to its syrupy melodic quality. Scott skillfully carves himself a pocket within the airy atmospheric production laid out by Metro Boomin, Blake, Foat, Wavey, and Dre Moon. He remains comfortable in it with the use of a simple AA (couplet) rhyme scheme, spliced with an internal rhyme on each bar. “We on a drive, looped in, Two seat ride, Who’s In?” His technique here lends itself to the verse’s smooth, cyclical quality. It feels as if Scott could keep going on in this way forever. Where he’s going though, I’m not exactly sure of.
On one hand, the song is about joining the mile-high club, mostly made clear by Scott’s verses and hook, while also being about feeling mile high in the mundane moments that plague reality while you are with your lover, as evinced by Blake: “Watch the fan as it spins/ In my arms, wrapped in/ Don’t know where you start/ and where I begin…” I love the sentiments Blake expresses here, of laying entangled with your lover, staring up at the ceiling fan, but the juxtaposition of these two perspectives, one seemingly superficial and fixated on sex, and one concerned with the inner workings of a meaningful relationship, seem to fall a little flat. The song feels unremarkable, yet heavily marketable: a perfect recipe for a single, I guess. And though it sounds exceptional in the car, and I don’t typically skip it on my play-throughs, Mile High is easily decided the weakest link on Assume Form. Luckily, the next feature provides us with a bit more depth.
Blake recruits Allen Ritter, Dan Foat, Dre Moon, and Metro Boomin’ on the production side of the track Tell Them, this time alongside the likes of Moses Sumney: another ethereal, electro-soul, folk-adjacent crooner based in Los Angeles. Sumney brings his soulful, granular vocals and his other-worldly falsetto to Blake’s similar sonic palette.
Together, the two paint a dimmed, abstracted still life of a one-night stand that is endlessly self-reflective and critical. The song takes on the form of an inner-monologue in which both Blake and Sumney question themselves, their hearts, and their motives in relation to a one night stand they may have just had. The analysis is primed, and coated in a fear of intimacy. Here, Sumney’s lyrics take on the elusive, abstracted quality that Blake normally reserves for himself. “You can’t return the sacred time you steal/ the fact betrays the way you feel/ and the sight delays the right to heal/ you decide to stay long…” Alongside Sumney, Blake summons his use of repetition to further place the song in the mind; the repetitive nature feels akin to a stream of thoughts, “I didn’t plan to stay long/ I didn’t plan to stay long/ I didn’t plan to stay long…”
Blake and Sumney’s sounds have a similar, ethereal, soulful thread that links them across genre. A fear arises though, when they’re both slated to be on a track together: will this be too ethereal? (Is there even such a thing?) And will either collaborator emerge bleached, or washed out by the other? The two somehow manage to masterfully coexist sonically and lyrically to deliver a self-analytical soliloquy on the walk of shame.
On Barefoot in the Park, Blake recruits ROSALÍA to help paint a picture of the heady, effortlessly enthralling experience that new love can be. The Catalan-born, nuevo flamenco pop singer brings a softly striking, clear voice to the ballad, as well as an adept use of metaphors, natural abstractions, and imagery from her flamenco roots. The song gets its title from a play of the same name by playwright Neil Simon. The play centers around a newlywed couple in the throes of learning to live together. The song, and the album seem to take on a similar tone. The chemistry ROSALÍA and Blake display makes this one of the brighter, most surprising spots on the record. Hearing the two artists harmonizing both in English and Spanish speak to the precedence of Blake’s openness in his creative process, as well as the strength of his ear. Blake was particularly drawn to the singer’s vulnerability and rawness she displayed on her 2017 debut, Los Ángeles. There’s no doubt that she brought a similar energy to Barefoot in the Park, as it remains one of the more memorable songs on the record with an unexpected allusion to theatre.
The final feature on Assume Form comes from André 3000 on a track titled, Where’s the Catch. 3 Stacks makes sure to preface the turbulent verse by warning listeners that it’s going to be a heady one, as if we expected anything less from the man at this point. This is absolutely one of those verses where you’re going to have to 1) do some close, repeated listenings and 2) read the lyrics as you listen to fully comprehend the lyrical and metaphorical summersault he puts on display here. The song is about the idiom, ‘Where’s the Catch’, which refers to experiences in which everything seems too good to be true. Blake and André 3000 trade verses with bated breath as they wait for the shoe to drop on their newfound source of happiness. Keeping in line with the theme of the album, the song seems pointed at a relationship, but could also be interpreted as being about a state of mind, as mostly evinced by 3 Stacks’ verse. It’s a dizzying trek through the rap legends enormous literary tool shed. He employs every literary device you thought you forgot in high school. Alliteration, repetition, personification, metaphors and similes abound. Some may sense some pretension given the wordsmith’s ornate display, but here the end justifies the means. As a fan of 3 Stacks, it’s a delight to hear him lyrically dance circles around himself, as it gives us a sense that this too is what is and has been happening in his mind.
Just as the medium is the message, form informs function and content. His verse pours out of him at warp speed, speaking to the rush and flow of his derailed train of thought, while the verse itself is a poignant, surrealist portrait of self-awareness, anxiety and doubt. If the thesis of Assume Form is leaving the ether (the mind), becoming reachable and tangible in the here and now, then within this verse alone, André 3000 manages to conjure up the antithesis of Assume Form. A stagnant paranoia acts as the underlying theme found throughout, often juxtaposing the joys of a newfound way of living and loving. Masterfully, Blake returns to simple, repetitive elements to drive his point home alongside André 3000’s complex world of words.
The featured artists on Assume Form don’t overpower Blake but remain in conversation as their presence is distinguished and pronounced on each track. As Blake becomes more tangible, the featured artists seem to become more abstracted, heady, ethereal, and vice versa. This display of contextual awareness and creative give and take from Blake is impressive, and further speaks to his musical genius.
Other bright spots on the album include the aptly named album opener, Assume Form, which does an excellent job of setting the tone for the project with a fluttering introduction to Blake’s newfound confidence in his burgeoning ability to trust. Are You In Love paints an impression of the anxious liminal space you may find yourself in before you’ve told them you love them, before love’s assurance is received. Can’t Believe The Way We Flow and I’ll Come Too are lighthearted, exuberant tracks that give the album its initial sappy, love-letter feeling, mirroring the honeymoon phase in relationships, while Power On and Into the Red provide us with Blake’s grounded, mature view of his relationship as a source of surprising support and harmony in his life. Don’t Miss It seems to act as a refrain for the underlying antithesis of the album. The stagnating self-doubt, anxiety and depression that finds itself peaking its head in between all these lovely moments finds its way to the surface on this song. And finally, Lullaby For My Insomniac is the outro track that sees Blake assuming the role of supporter and comforter that he’s seen his lover be for him. He ends the track in solidarity for his insomniac by offering to ‘stay up too, and see everything as a blur tomorrow, if she does too’.
With this project, Blake effectively minimizes the space between fans and himself, similar to what Frank did with Blond. His use of clear and concise lyrics de-haze the misty atmosphere that usually surround his work and his image. With Assume Form, we are formally invited into his personal world which he’s shown has not only consisted of head-rushing feelings of love and contentment, but also of anxiety, depression, and at times, ungratefulness. Blake has delivered an incredibly thorough project that I feel deserves just as much close listening and play-throughs as any of his previous work. UPDATED: inretrospect rating: 82/100