It’s been a fascinating decade watching the genius of James Blake unfold before us. His 2011 debut album, simply titled James Blake, gave us a glimpse into the mind of an electronic musician destined for stardom. Before that, he had released EPs and side-projects through Hessle Audio and R&S Records, amazing works of experimental electronic that pushed boundaries and helped shape the landscape of music as we see it today. But it was his debut album that enabled him to showcase his talents as not only a producer but a fully fledged songwriter, composing complex and lush melodies that were enveloped in beautiful, layered instrumentation that brought such emotive power and poignancy to his music. And let’s not forget his signature voice, a slight husky charm that had such a soothing effect on record.
On a personal level, James’ music has influenced me profoundly throughout my teenage years. He was my first ever concert, seeing him live again a couple of years later. His 2011 breakthrough album is among my favourite albums of all time. And yet with every release since James Blake I have felt more and more disappointed in his output. It’s not that his music grew worse in quality, but to me he lacked the same form of experimentation within his music that kept it fresh and exciting. 2013’s Overgrown was an impressive follow-up to his 2011 classic, blending sonic experimentation with electronic rhythms and stellar songwriting. It didn’t, however, match up to the same fearlessness and boldness of his previous album. 2016’s The Colour In Anything was a bloated 17-track album which, despite it being gorgeous in every sense of the word, lacked the same cohesiveness as his previous projects. It just didn’t captivate me the same way as his previous albums, and I started to wonder if James Blake would regain the same type of energy as he did on his self-titled debut.
On the 18th January 2019, James Blake released his 4th studio album, Assume Form. It was 12 tracks long, 48 minutes in length and featuring Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, Moses Sumney, Rosalía and Andre 3000. This album did not disappoint one bit. The album opens up with a triumphant sense of reassurance with “Assume Form.” With stunning keys, string sections and vocal samples that are intertwined between James’ warm voice. The melody on this track melts in my ear, almost becoming lost within the grandiosity of it all. Moments like these can be found all over this album. “Into The Red” brings synth-laden melodies with crisp electronic effects being enveloped again in between a soothing bassline and James Blake’s beautiful voice, singing about his perception and experience of falling in love. “Don’t Miss Me,” a previously released single is slower in pace and features more emphasis on keys and melody, but with such a delicate touch that it’s hard not to become drawn in to the beautiful atmosphere of the track. “Lullaby For My Insomniac” features a passionate vocal performance from James, accompanied by heavy synth notes that catch me in a moment in time.
I’m honestly mesmerised by how the gorgeous, organic quality of this record is complemented by harsher, more aggressive moments. “Where’s the Catch?” features Andre 3000, and is easily the wildest track of all. With a hypnotic, eerie beat and a powerful verse from the hip-hop legend, James is able to provide his own personality, playing around with samples and creating a frivolous energy to it that I couldn’t shake off the first time I listened to it. The Metro Boomin feature was the most questionable to me. I was intrigued as to how James would merge his world with the world of trap music, but the results are spectacular. “Mile High” with Travis Scott is a slow-paced trap masterpiece, with Travis and James complementing each others vocals effortlessly. It’s not a surprise since James was featured on “Stop Trying To Be God” off Travis Scott’s 2018 album Astroworld, but it’s the change in flows and rhythms throughout the track that make it a standout for me. Equally so, the Moses Sumney featured “Tell Them” is another highlight, with a faster-paced rhythm that is accompanied by a twisted vocal rhythm from Moses, who shines through on this record.
Rosalía’s vocal performance on “Barefoot In The Park” is stunning, while “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” reminds me of something James would have composed pre-2011, with amazing sonic experimentation and loops that just bring such colour to the record.
Overall, Assume Form finds James Blake in a position of clarity, as he reinvents his sound and pushes the boundaries of what I thought he could accomplish musically. This is an incredible piece of music and I can only hope that he grows even more in the future. Listen to James Blake’s Assume Form via Spotify below and don’t forget to support!