|James Blake — Assume Form (Jan. 18, 2019)
James Blake — Assume Form (Jan. 18, 2019)→ Blake lets his fourth record evaporate in a warm haze of layered vocals.
Location: London, England
Album release: Jan. 18, 2019
Record Label: Republic
01 Assume Form 4:50
02 Mile High (feat. Metro Boomin & Travis Scott) 3:14
03 Tell Them (feat. Metro Boomin & Moses Sumney) 3:28
04 Into the Red 4:17
05 Barefoot in the Park (feat. ROSALÍA) 3:31
06 Can’t Believe the Way We Flow 4:27
07 Are You in Love? 3:18
08 Where’s the Catch? (feat. André 3000) 4:36
09 I’ll Come Too 3:42
10 Power On 4:06
11 Don’t Miss It 4:59
12 Lullaby for My Insomniac 3:44
→ James Blake 1, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12
→ Blake, Leland Wayne, Jacques Webster 2
→ Blake, Moses Sumney, Wayne, Allen Ritter 3
→ Blake, Rosalía Vila Tobella, Paco Ortega 5
→ Blake, Roger Joyce, Victoria Pike, Teddy Randazzo 6
→ Blake, André Benjamin 8
→ Blake, Bruno Nicolai 9
→ James Blake — vocals, piano, synthesisers, programming
→ Dominic Maker — programming (tracks 1, 4~6 and 9~11)
→ Travis Scott — vocals (track 2)
→ Moses Sumney — vocals (track 3)
→ Rosalía — vocals (track 5)
→ André 3000 — vocals (track 8)
→ Metro Boomin — production (tracks 2 and 3)
→ Peter Lee Johnson — string arrangement (track 3)
→ Nathan Boddy — co~mixing
→ James Blake — co~mixing
→ Joshua Smith — recording engineering
→ John Armstrong — assistant recording engineering
→ Eric Eylands — assistant recording engineering
Kitty Empire, Sat 19 Jan 2019 14.00 GMT; Score: ***
→ Assume Form review — a big, glitchy, swooning, hyper~modern declaration of love
→ A love letter to his partner brimming with guest spots and west~coast vibes, James Blake’s fourth LP is a long way from his ‘blubstep’ roots.
→ It’s not hard to see why someone might fall in love with Jameela Jamil — the star around which James Blake’s fourth album, Assume Form, orbits. The character Jamil plays on NBC’s The Good Place gets called things like “sexy skyscraper” (and “sexy giraffe”, and “a hot rich fraud with legs for days”).
→ Jamil’s penthouse suite is well furnished too. The British radio DJ turned screenwriter turned actor recently made a documentary for Radio 4 about sexual consent. Her Instagram campaign #iweigh encourages women to consider their true substance: their strengths and achievements, rather than their vital statistics. Last year she called the Kardashians “unwitting double~agents for the patriarchy”.
→ Jamil is very much in a relationship, though — with Blake, the British dubstep producer turned singer~songwriter. Two sensitive Brits who made it big on their own terms in Los Angeles, the pair have been dating since 2015 but gradually made their relationship status more public last year.
→ If one were to pitch Blake’s latest album in a Hollywood elevator, it would be that Assume Form is a soundtrack to that slow reveal: a loved~up paean to finding oneself in another. In that respect, it’s like Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, stripped of its cynicism and soft porn. (“I’ll use both hands,” is about as far as Blake goes here.) It’s Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call — the Bad Seeds’ thinly disguised suite of love songs to PJ Harvey — with way more guest rappers.
→ One song, Can’t Believe the Way We Flow, gives a flavour of exactly how cock~a~hoop Blake is. Awash with cascading, multitracked soul harmonies, the track finds Blake’s warble verging on the ecstatic rather than wounded. “You waive my fear of self,” he croons.
→ I’ll Come Too (minds out of the gutter, Misty fans) is about gambolling about with your inamorata, no matter where she happens to be going. New York? Sure. “The brink”? Yes again. Blake’s production is still uneasily abstract — the track’s rolling~marble beat still bears a token resemblance to trap hip~hop. But swelling Disney strings and Blake’s blithe melody pack a vintage swoon.
→ It barely needs saying that Blake is not a natural candidate to tiptoe through tulips. Known for his austere late~night digitals, parched angst and extensive collaborations with A~list superstars such as Beyoncé, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, the 30~year~old north Londoner first came to renown by combining vulnerable male vocals with cutting~edge production.
→ With his 2011 self~titled debut and its Mercury prize~winning sequel, 2013’s Overgrown, Blake kicked off an entire subgenre of popular music. Some rain~curdled British wags labelled it “blubstep”. Wisconsin’s Bon Iver was of a similar falsetto~and~digital mind on 2016’s 22, a Million, however.
→ More recently, artists like Moses Sumney have brought this racked hyper~modern sound full circle back to its point of origin in the ache of African American soul, refracted through a 21st~century filter. Blake acknowledges his synchronicity with Sumney: the two have toured together, and Sumney guests on one track here, Tell Them. Deliciously, Sumney’s witchy falsetto weaves in and out of Blake’s own in a game of spot~the~difference.
→ This album does get a bit crowded, however. Because Blake is thick with hip~hop artists and producers, his work leads naturally to a kind of quid pro quo. So just as the listener is falling hard for Assume Form’s title track — elegiac piano, percussive skitter, heartfelt sentiments such as “This is the first time I connect motion to feeling” — up pops Kylie Jenner’s baby~daddy, Travis Scott, on the next track. Hip~hop super~producer Metro Boomin is another superfluous third wheel who drops in twice.
→ We are definitely not in north London any more, Toto: this deeply personal, intimate album by a formerly stiff~upper~lipped British introvert is sited firmly on the west coast and deep in the belly of the music industry. Is that the hottest new artist of 2019, the forward~flamenco singer Rosalía, on another tune? So it is.
→ Her collaboration with Blake — Barefoot in the Park — is, however, far more pleasing to the ear than the hook~ups with hip~hop’s flushest. The two conjoin on a humid and haunted thermal whose only downside is how Blake’s more front~and~centre singing voice has started resembling that of Chris Martin from Coldplay.
→ An older rapper, Outkast’s André 3000, weighs in on Where’s the Catch — the one moment on this deeply committed album where Blake expresses a little trepidation about this newfound bliss.
→ Lest we forget, André 3000 is a man so evolved he penned a letter of apology to his ex~mother~in~law: Ms Jackson. He proves a sage, wry presence. “All my pessimistic keeps me in my cage,” he testifies — a line that points to a deeper reading of Assume Form.
→ This album is, without a doubt, a big, glitchy, swooning, hyper~modern declaration of love. “We delayed the show we kissed so long,” Blake sighs. “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone,” he flirts. Blake and Jamil are not married, but Blake says “I do” so often on Can’t Believe the Way We Flow as to make the ceremony superfluous.
→ Assume Form is not without its problems — the incipient echo of Martin (another nice boy from England who now hangs with Beyoncé) and an inveterate itchiness to the production that ill suits the considered joy on show.
→ Its true resonance, though, might be as a document of recovery: from the depression, lifelong isolation and “cyclical thoughts” (Don’t Miss It) of making music, often alone. It’s not just Blake: as bands increasingly gave way to solo bedroom artists more than a decade ago, the tortured singer~songwriter at the front of traditional bass~drums~guitar set~ups became the tortured solo~operating DIY troubadour. Although Blake, neck~deep in the underground, played well with others — running club nights at university, remixing, collaborating — the success of his intimate music inevitably propelled him into being a kind of poster boy for the night~steeped solipsism of the age.
→ Blake is now “out of his head”, as the title track has it — not off his face but “touchable, reachable”. The more attentive listener will spot that Blake’s last album, 2016’s The Colour in Anything, also dates from a period when Jamil was in the picture. But that record remained almost as cloistered and spartan as Blake’s previous works — like a clench before a release, it feels now.
→ With sustained love has come liberation. If the pitch~shifted interpolation from performance poet Rage Almighty on the title track were not enough to nail Blake’s subplot to the mast (depression, it goes, “feels like a thousand pound weight holding your body down in a pool of water barely reaching your chin”), Power On states things pretty baldly: “I thought I might be better dead/ But I was wrong,” Blake drawls.
→ The sparse, but comforting Don’t Miss It finds Blake’s heavily digitised vocal itemising how far has he come. Love happens, Blake avers on Assume Form. But more than that: change is possible.
Helen Brown, Jan. 20, 2019; Score: *****
BY WREN GRAVES ON JANUARY 17, 2019, 8:27AM / SCORE: A–
→ A cautious happiness with a dab of acid rings true on the songwriter’s latest achievement
→ The Lowdown: James Blake’s career is the story of percussion giving way to melody. The onetime dubstep DJ first gained notice for his kinetic drums and wildly fractured rhythms. But even as dubstep was peaking, Blake was moving on. His debut album, 2011’s James Blake, showcased a new attention to hookmaking. Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” placed him at the forefront of pop’s avant~garde, and his next two albums only added to this reputation. Blake favors disquieting instrumentals and gobsmackingly gorgeous melodies. Artists from Frank Ocean to Post Malone owe a debt to his wobbling chords and lonely, introspective lyrics. In this sense, his new album is a departure. It seems he’s no longer lonely. As it happens, Blake is dating Jameela Jamil of The Good Place, and on Assume Form, he expresses a kind of cautious happiness for the first time.
→ The Good: Songs that are written with a specific person in mind can range from great to terrible, insightful to pandering, “Layla” to “Pete Davidson”. Assume Form is, happily, full of insight. Blake dwells on the anxieties of new relationships. “Are You in Love” does ask that question, but it doesn’t give you time to respond before begging you to “Do your best impression for me.” “Where’s the Catch” captures the jittery feeling of waiting for a good thing to go bad and features a galaxy~brained guest verse from Andre 3000. The album works because Blake is sparing with sweetness, always ready to balance it out with a dash of acid or bitterness. This restraint pays off on the big, romantic numbers, especially “Barefoot in the Park” featuring Rosalia. She sings in Spanish with a voice like sunlight on cobwebs, and Blake abandons all melodic restraint. Never mind the minor key: “Barefoot in the Park” gushes with loveliness.
→ The Bad: I see you, message board warrior, ready to come roaring in with “But none of the songs are as good as, ‘Retrograde’!” And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps James Blake wrote a perfect song several years ago, and now every new effort must be held ransom to our memories of that perfection. But this record is remarkable in its own right. If I have one complaint, it’s only that Assume Form, like previous James Blake albums, saves its most ethereal and spaced~out songs for the end. Artists do this kind of thing because they tend to jam to their own stuff in dark studios with excellent speakers. Under those circumstances, you can achieve remarkable emotional effects. And it’s true, when I listened to the album at home on my best speakers, I appreciated the subtle artistry of the last two tracks, “Don’t Miss It” and “Lullaby for My Insomniac”. But in a train, in a car, at work, or while walking down a street — the times when most people listen to music — the album runs out of energy. It fizzles to its end. Again, these tracks worked for me in a distraction~free environment, but your mileage may vary.
→ The Verdict: Even with a finale that slightly underwhelms, Assume Form is a remarkable achievement by one of the most original songwriters of his generation. Blake hasn’t lost his love of percussion, and his gift for melody seems without limit. This is Blake at his most focused, stripped of electronic frills, and down to his emotional underwear. Considering the subject, you might have thought things would get a bit dull. Luckily, James Blake is one of those uncommon artists who can be both happy and interesting. — CoS
Essential Tracks: “Barefoot in the Park”, “Are You in Love”, and “Where’s the Catch”.
|James Blake — Assume Form (Jan. 18, 2019)