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James Blake - Assume Form Music Album Reviews

There’s a suffocating seriousness that runs through the singer and producer’s fourth album, one that bogs down genuine moments of levity and love.

James Blake has always been a confessional singer-songwriter—consider the days where he sang about siblings who would not speak to him, or the “I can’t believe this, you don’t wanna see me” that opened 2016’s The Colour in Anything. But Assume Form is something else, something like a great unburdening. We are not 30 seconds into the record and he is already peeling off the layers to bare all his innermost thoughts: “Know I may have gone through the motions my whole life,” he sings at us, before we have even gotten a chance to find our footing in this surfeit of feeling that is oh so exquisitely soundtracked by a barely there drumbeat and a delicate piano figure.

Blake’s last album was billed as a kind of coming up for air. After the darkness of his self-titled debut and 2013’s Overgrown, new love had let the light in and buoyed his spirits. That now looks like a merely transitory stage on the path to the grand transformation he has undergone on Assume Form. He is a new man here, changed by love—something we learn again and again, as he examines every centimeter of his ego, every corner of the vertiginous ecstasy and insecurity of true love at last. On that opening title track, he confides, “I will be touchable/I will be reachable,” sounding like he is repeating instructions a couples counselor once gave him. Even goopier is the line “I thought sex was at my pace, but I was wrong.” There’s something weirdly clinical about his treatment of romance; instead of rose petals, there’s the pulpy taste of a wooden tongue depressor.

There are moments of genuine sweetness, like the closing “Lullaby for My Insomniac.” It is a promise to keep his sleepless partner company until the dawn, voiced in airy, multi-tracked vocal harmonies and framed by church organ: “I’ll stay up too/I’d rather see everything/As a blur tomorrow/If you do.” The sentiment is sketched with the fine-tipped economy of a pencil drawing; the arrangement sounds like it might have been written by Arvo Pärt. Musically, as a kind of ambient-chamber-gospel music, it captures the essence of Blake’s songwriting in a way he has never done before. It’s perfect.

There are some jokes, too: In “Tell Them,” a slinky trap number with a co-production from Metro Boomin, he admits, “In the snakepit so long I put posters up”—a delightful image and a keen contrast with the opulent surroundings: Arabesque melodic accents, flamenco handclaps, and a breathy guest verse from a soulful and sandpapery Moses Sumney. And in the heartbroken “Don’t Miss It,” when he sings, “Everything is about me/I am the most important thing” it’s an altogether welcome moment of self-deprecation. Although, here in the penultimate song, some 40 minutes into the most solipsistic album of his career—the word “I” appears in the album’s lyric sheet 136 times—it may be a case of too little too late.

Because mostly, Assume Form is aggressively pastel and suffocatingly serious. He has lost the playful sense of surprise that guided his falsetto’s agile twists and turns on his debut. He doesn’t so much explore his upper register as just perch there. His keyboards are draped in reverb; strings and vocal harmonies are strewn about his sentimental tableaux like so many gilded lilies. It’s a lot to take. I suppose there are those who will find inspiration in a song like the doo-wop-infused “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow,” but I can’t help but find something off-puttingly performative and voyeuristic in its romantic rapture; it feels like watching a couple slow-dance in a mirror.

There is the skeleton of a different, more interesting album lurking beneath the surface. In recent years, having moved on from the hermetic dubstep and thrillingly experimental atmospheres of his early EPs, Blake has become unexpectedly ubiquitous in the bold-font pop landscape. He has guested with, and written and produced for, Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, André 3000, Travis Scott, and Ab-Soul and Anderson .Paak, along with artists like Mount Kimbie and Oneohtrix Point Never, who share roots in his own underground electronic milieu.

The vehement interiority of his own music makes him an unlikely collaborator, though it’s easy to see why so many artists want to work with him: Despite his history crafting boundary-breaking electronic music, most use him as a kind of human preset, a metonym for broad-strokes melancholy. But on Assume Form, a few choice collaborators help draw him back out of himself. Travis Scott’s Auto-Tuned croon adds dimension to the meditative sound of the Metro Boomin-assisted “Mile High,” a druggy reverie imbued with the stillness of an Edward Hopper painting, a portrait of two people who can’t tear their gazes away from each other: “Watch the fan as it spins/In my arms wrapped in/Don’t know where you start/And where I begin,” sings Blake, deep in the zone.

”Barefoot in the Park,” featuring the Spanish electro-flamenco singer Rosalía, is less successful—her own breathy warble is the song’s best feature, while the tropical IDM beat and rising-and-falling melody are largely forgettable. But “Where’s the Catch,” with André 3000, is one of the album’s highlights—the rare instance where Blake’s ethereal coo and dandelion-tuft melodies are anchored by the bass throb of his earliest work. That framing gives him license to roam more freely: “Where’s the catch,” Blake snarls, sounding almost feline as he paces warily around his own contentment. Doubt becomes him.

”OK, all right now, this may be a little bit heady,” warns André as he intros his guest spot: “You know, I hate heady-ass verses. But I wrote this shit, so here we go.” It is not, in fact, a particularly heady verse, at least not in the sense that “heady” might mean “pretentious” or “self-absorbed”; it’s a Jacob’s ladder of alliteration and free-associative wordplay, a dizzying leap of pure pleasure. But André’s self-aware humor embodies a lightness of spirit that’s too often absent from Assume Form, and the unfettered, unpredictable way his verse pours out of him only underscores the stilted, belabored qualities of Blake’s own creation, as heavy as molasses in midwinter. In an album ostensibly all about the freedom to be oneself that love bestows, Blake sounds hamstrung by old habits, trapped in a musical cage of his own making. For an album all about flow, Assume Form is maddeningly stagnant.

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