In a career broaching on a decade, James Blake has produced for and alongside some of the biggest names in hip-hop and pop: Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean. Between the giants, he’s carved out a voice of his own—Assume Form closes his first decade with a vulnerable and gracious note. While his general “sad boy” electropop is still the sonic skeleton of the twelve tracks, his message has wizened into a more grateful introspection, resting on the back of what is essentially a collection of blissful love songs.
After achieving reasonable heights in the industry, Blake’s steady romance is what grounds him (and his ghostly melodies); “I’ll leave the ether…I will be reachable” (“Assume Form”). Most of the rhythm in the album is left to barebones house beats meant to soothe, allowing each track to pile on more and more layers of melody. The crescendos of “Are You In Love” (electronic organs suddenly backed by a small orchestra of strings and woodwinds), the rising collective voices of “Into the Red”, they’re all teasing you with their initial simplicity, begging the listener to join Blake’s enjoyment of the moment, as he ‘calls off the chase’ having found romance. The only moments on the album not polished to a fine smoothness are those middle tracks, “Are You In Love” and “Where’s The Catch” when he confesses that everything is too good, as if he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop; the synths stray from order, and Andre 3000 goes absolutely off on another great feature verse (reminiscent of a feature on Frank Ocean’s Blond).
Beyond the idea of grounding oneself, (reflected in standout advance single, “Don’t Miss It”), Assume Form is about sacrifice, and recognition of other’s sacrifices, as they relate to love. “Into the Red” praises his lover for the continual sacrifices she makes, professionally and personally; pride is sacrificed in the apologetic “Power On”; album closer “Lullaby for My Insomniac” has Blake staying awake beside his lover. I found the vulnerability of the album a refreshing take on the oldest theme in music, and a great reflection on masculinity. Even guest Travis Scott, fresh off of Astroworld, bares himself in “Mile High”’s melodic rapping—the chillest banger I’ve heard in some time. All the featured artists here are used effectively, especially Spanish vocalist ROSALIA on “Barefoot in the Park”. And Blake’s lyrics can warble and croon out with disarming power at times, like the heartfelt line, “You are my fear of death / You are my fear of self.” (“Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”).
While sometimes it’s skeletal sparseness can work against itself, Assume Form has the wisdom to build upon each track in effective, genuinely emotional ways. It’s infectiously loveydovey at times, bittersweet at others. James Blake’s charisma as an artist and his vision as a producer seem to be rising with his career, yet he takes this moment to ground himself. Standout tracks are “Are You In Love”, “I’ll Come Too”, and “Don’t Miss It”. Don’t miss this album.
review by Matthew Wardell