Review: James Blake hits all the right notes with his new album “Assume Form”

In Arts & Entertainment, Lifestyle, Music, Reviews
An illustration of James Blake closing his eyes as keys from a keyboard are flowing in front of him like a ribbon.

A lone piano flourishes out into the darkness — then a click, a bass hit and then James Blake.

His voice, heavy and soulful, rests upon the light and airy strokes of the piano. “I hope this is the first day, that I connect motion to feeling,” he sings. “Assume Form,” released Jan. 18, is both the title and opening track for Blake’s newest album.

It’s the first time hearing from Blake in some time. His last solo effort was in 2016. Since then, Blake has become a popular collaborator and producer, working with the likes of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar on “Lemonade” and the soundtrack to “Black Panther,” respectively.

“Assume Form” is aptly titled with respect to Blake’s past collaborations and works that are now culminating into this solo career.

As such, Blake rings in Travis Scott to go “sicko mode” on a new beat. “Mile High” is the second track that introduces just the right amount of energy. It’s chill and laid back, a late night track that flows right out of the title track’s newfound confidence. Scott’s melodies are addictive as ever.

Another trap-flavored song immediately follows, with “Tell Them” continuing to deliver on the nocturnal vibes.

The mood switches up in the next portion of the album. Samples that sound as if they’re lifted from a Disney movie glide in and out of the instrumentation, surrounding lyrics of infatuation and carefree love. “I’ll Come Too” is honeymoon stage incarnate, with a nostalgic sample and Blake singing “I don’t wanna go home, shall we drive from zone to zone?”

In “Barefoot in the Park,” Rosalía accompanies Blake, which results in what sounds like a modern-day duet on the Moroccan coast — at dusk. An ethereal loop cocoons the pair, with the flamenco claps that appeared in “Tell Them” also appearing on this track; it’s a home away from home for the featured flamenco-pop singer. For non-Spanish speaking fans of Rosalía, it is a treat to hear her sing in English.

The heavy beats return on “Where’s the Catch?,” a song in which Blake’s earlier confessions of love turn paranoid. André 3000 rips through his verse, then sings along with Blake that “everything’s rose.” Every rose has its thorn, though, and perhaps Blake feels his love is too good to be true. Perhaps his desire to “assume form” and accept love is constantly distracted by his own heady anxieties.

This is something that is brutally acknowledged in “Don’t Miss It.” A hauntingly beautiful vocal melody cries out as Blake mockingly states “Everything is about me / I am the most important thing.” He goes on to list all he missed in life, whether it was due to depression or his own ego. He warns the listener, “Don’t miss it, don’t miss it like I did.”

In the more intimate, “Lullaby for My Insomniac,” Blake reverses the perspective. “Sleep happens to you, it’s not a failure if you can’t.” Though he is literally singing his lover to sleep, he is also assuring himself that some things are out of his control, that the ebb and flow of life is natural.

For the instrumentation, strings and pianos sound plucked from several musical cultures and featured artists come from all walks of life. Yet, it all feels connected.

The perspective is what really sells “Assume Form.” It has a global but intimate atmosphere, like drifting in and out of sleep on an international flight, peering down at the veins of cities below. Topics broached aren’t just relatable and impactful, they are decidedly modern. Ultimately, Blake is seeking connection, something that has become more and more complicated in the internet age.

For those who are interested in downtempo, hip-hop, electronic or pop, “Assume Form” is a must-listen.

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