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  • Writer's pictureEdward Pomykaj

The Becoming of James Blake

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

Photo by Nabil.

James Blake's 2019 album is aptly named Assume Form. 12 Tracks in length, Assume Form felt like Blake's first real "album," meaning, it was the first of his major projects that felt like what an album usually feels like. Rather than some amorphous mass of tracks like 2016's The Colour in Anything, or his self-titled debut which he himself has described as being essentially 11 of his best songs at that time and nothing more, Assume Form comes to listeners as a package-deal - a cohesive unit, thematically bound by the idea of becoming.

It's a gorgeous album; in fact, it's one of my absolute favorites. My first time listening was entirely earth-shattering, and I remember it vividly. At the time, I was living in Vermont and had a hefty commute to the office. It was the first time I ever heard the voice of Rosalía, and I remember spontaneously breaking into tears listening to "Barefoot in the Park." The harmonies on "Can't Believe The Way We Flow" sounded impossible; the melody of "I'll Come Too" was so catchy yet seemingly inhuman. Ultimately, the album felt important.

I remember parking my car in the garage at the University of Vermont right when "Lullaby For My Insomniac" began. It was winter still, but one of the warmest days yet, and sunny. I walked across campus with Blake's voice ringing in my ears - harmonized with itself god only knows how many times - and thought, "how the fuck did he do this?"

Assume Form was surprising, no doubt, but it still felt like an album. Or at least, the songs felt like normal songs, with some structure generally speaking, and little moments of strange outlying architectural anomalies. And then you go further back into his catalogue.

What the fuck is going on in The Colour in Anything? Like, how did we get from "Radio Silence" to "I Hope My Life - 1 800 Mix"? And like, what is happening in "Points"? And then there's Overgrown, which maybe has more structure than The Colour in Anything, but not by much. The title track itself is just a repeating melody over a skeletal track. Later we get a bizarre RZA feature on "Take A Fall For Me," a song which seemingly follows no blueprint.

And then there's his debut album, James Blake. Its now legendary status hinges on its catchy weirdness, being as sonically dense as it is disparate. Sure, there's the cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love," but other than that we have the repeating vocal melodies of "The Wilhelm Scream" and "I Never Learnt To Share" while Blake seemingly flexes his production skills for a few minutes. And then there's the "Lindisfarne" suite, which features the most emotional-robotic vocals possible over almost no music at all. Talk about confusing.

And I love all three of these albums. They're incredible. If Blake wants to sing the same melody for 4 minutes while playing around in Logic Pro, I'm very happy with that. But I'm not going to pretend it makes any actual sense. Not like Assume Form at least tries to make sense.

What has always been fun about Blake's music, however, is that element of surprise. Just when it feels like you have started to understand what is happening - either in the song, or the album as a whole - he seemingly anticipates that, and makes you uncomfortable.

Assume Form finds Blake understanding exactly how to do this while also giving us something we can grasp. We get songs, and they're fun to sing along with. They have beginnings, middles, ends. They're catchy, but unusual enough to keep us interested. We get to sit back and listen to Blake impress us with his lovely vocal range, his production prowess, and some unexpected features from Andre 3000 and Travis Scott.

Well, on October 8th, 2021, we'll have his fifth studio album Friends That Break Your Heart. And so far, we have three singles: "Say What You Will," "Life Is Not The Same," and "Famous Last Words." This comes after a rather successful 2020, during which Blake released two EPs, one of covers, and an other featuring 4 absolutely incredible dance tracks titled Before. While the world went into to lockdown, Blake seemed to come out of his shell, doing countless Instagram live piano shows, releasing unexpected music, and getting a little weirder on social media. He was featured on slowthai's newest album Tyron, on perhaps the best track of the album, "feel away."

But here's my concern, his three newest songs are perhaps the least "Blake-esque" songs he has ever released. "Say What You Will," for instance, follows a relatively standard chord progression, and features a vocal melody that sits just so comfortably on top of that progression. "Life Is Not The Same" is so concise it almost plays without you noticing. I'm not jarred by these tracks, which is what I have come to expect from Blake.

But maybe that's the most jarring thing for Blake to be doing right now, just handing us beautiful songs. "Famous Last Words"- my favorite of the three singles - is truly gorgeous. The sliding harmonies during the chorus, the string parts near the end; there are surprises in every nook and cranny of the track. Blake is just hiding them a bit.

And maybe that's why I'm still listening to these tracks despite being initially underwhelmed by them. There's less to be shocked by and more to be immersed in, if you pay attention. There are details, rather than large notions. Pieces and particulars inside the sound structure.

And they aren't without their flashy moments - just listen to Blakes vocals on "Say What You Will." It's hard not to be blown away by those unusual melodic choices coming out of that climatic moment.

So it seems his upcoming album could be a slow burner, and that's okay. Something to put on, again and again, so as to find the beauty in it. Which, at the end of the day, is what Blake has always asked his audience to do: listen and listen closely. But this time, you might not be listening to understand - grasping at its strangeness - but instead, for the simple beauty in it.

Friends That Break Your Heart - Out October 8th, 2021.


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