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James Blake's 'Assume Form' ponders complexities of human connection

music review

James Blake, who just released his fourth studio album "Assume Form," performs at the Melt! Festival in 2013.
James Blake, who just released his fourth studio album "Assume Form," performs at the Melt! Festival in 2013.

On “Assume Form,” James Blake’s fourth studio album, the London genre-bender is enamored and overwhelmed by the many facets of human connection. An immediately accessible approach to pondering such an abstract area would be to ground it in something tangible, be it technology or simply the physical sensation of touch. But James Blake is an intuitive personality type: He perceives information from within rather than from the outside world. So instead, he is most inclined to look inward for answers to the age-old questions of human connection, and these internal reflections on external behavior couldn’t have found a better home than Blake’s already nebulous and wintry music.

Each song here is an intricately layered piece of musical poetry, with consistently wise production decisions, resonant imagery and tasteful features all serving each other to deliver purposeful messages. The opener and title track of “Assume Form” is haunting in its hazy and out-of-time piano riffs and strings, which aptly reflect Blake’s desire to get out of his own head and assume a “touchable” and “reachable” form. The songs that follow show Blake pondering different aspects of human connection in an only sometimes successful attempt to pull himself out of his feelings of absence and depression.

On the Metro Boomin-produced “Mile High” and “Tell Them,” Blake twists the sexually boastful nature of modern hip hop and trap to emphasize the fear of connection evidenced by, say, a one-night stand. Metro and Blake work masterfully together to create deeply unsettling atmospheres while Travis Scott and Moses Sumney complement Blake’s melodies seamlessly. 

Later on the explicitly titled “Where’s the Catch?” Blake enlists Andre 3000, who is himself no stranger to depression and anxiety, to help him reflect on the consuming doubt he feels when a relationship is too good to be true. Andre 3000’s word play here is other-worldly (listen for “pessimistic” in the verse “all my pets are mystic, keeps me in a cage”), and Blake’s voice takes on numerous forms in the outro, each shifted to a different pitch to create an overwhelmingly dark sensation of paranoia.

Elsewhere, James Blake is simply enamored by his love interest’s ability to connect with him in ways that he struggles to return. He’s presumably referring to his current girlfriend, actress Jameela Jamil, whom he claims is the “reason this album exists,” but these songs speak to fundamental social and romantic truths. On album highlight “Barefoot In The Park,” Blake and 2018’s breakout star ROSALÍA wonder at the liberating quality of a new love. Their voices alternate with ease, and when they sing together in the choruses the result is one of the most beautiful collaborations in recent memory.

Meanwhile, “Into The Red” describes how Blake’s partner unhesitatingly sacrifices “everything that she had left” to help him. “I’ll Come Too,” on the other hand, depicts Blake awkwardly struggling to return the favor by dreamily following her wherever she goes. He’s similarly caught in a dream on the glitchy “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow,” further portraying his wonder at the chemistry of his relationship.

“Assume Form” builds up to its mission statement in lead single “Don’t Miss It.” The track collects all of the record’s ideas into five haunting minutes, opening with James Blake’s biggest fear: “If I give everything, I’ll lose everything.” His voice then morphs into a demonic caricature of his depression, declaring “everything is about me, I am the most important thing.” Blake proceeds to bluntly list the ways he could continue to let his depression keep him from developing relationships. He “could switch off whenever” he likes, even though he knows he needs to “Power On” to maintain his own relationship. He “could sleep whenever” he likes, even though he understands on “Lullaby For My Insomniac” that he needs to sacrifice things like sleep to return his partner’s dedication. Blake emphasizes here that happiness and human connection require effort and leaving his comfort zone, and at last, he’s once again in awe of how lucky he is to “hang out with [his] favorite person every day.” After years of losing opportunities for personal relationships to his depression, love pulled him out of his own head. Underscored by raw piano and staticky production, this lead single leaves us with the record’s most important message: “Don’t miss it like I did.”

James Blake’s fourth album is not nearly as musically groundbreaking as his self-titled debut, but in trading experimentalism for clarity, the singer-songwriter has provided just enough accessibility to let us into his head. With its brooding production and brutally honest lyrics serving each other, “Assume Form” is a stunningly resonant commentary on human connection from the perspective of a typically self-isolating introvert.

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