On 2019 album ‘Assume Form’, we were presented with a James Blake we’d never seen before. After years as an icy connoisseur of post-dubstep, the producer and songwriter’s fourth record introduced loved-up balladry and a newfound emotional openness; even the album’s artwork saw the blurred and obscured figure of past record sleeves swapped for a clear and front-facing self-portrait. He finally wanted to be seen.
This change was solidified by a statement Blake made on social media shortly after releasing ‘Assume Form’ highlight ‘Don’t Miss It’ in mid-2018, finally hitting back on what he called a “problematic” labelling of him as a ‘sad boy’ across his career, and the pressures on young males to hide their feelings. “There is no great victory in machismo and bravado in the end,” he wrote.
With this recalibration complete on the devastating, romantic ‘Assume Form’, and furthered on recent singles ‘You’re Too Precious’ and ‘Are You Even Real?’, it feels like Blake has got a lot off his chest over the past few years. On new EP ‘Before’, he takes this newfound freedom, albatross firmly removed from around his neck, and dives back into his love for club culture, bringing with him everything he’s learned along the way.
A lot of the music here harks back to the producer’s earliest releases – opener ‘I Keep Calling’ features signature pitched-up and manipulated vocals reminiscent of 2010 single ‘CMYK’ – but when ‘CMYK’ was defined by its icy, distant textures, ‘I Keep Calling’ closes with a warm wave of synths that edge the track into anthemic territory.
Then, on the EP’s title track, he sings: “Nothing’s in vain, because I’ve never had it as good before,” an implicit riposte at the detractors that also sees him celebrate the distance he’s travelled. ‘Do You Ever’, meanwhile, features a patchwork of vocal samples that jostle for space atop a menacing beat, reminiscent of ‘Assume Form’’s Andre 3000-featuring highlight ‘Where’s The Catch?’.
Alongside the release of the new EP, Blake will play his first Boiler Room session since 2013 this weekend. In the intervening years, balladry has overtaken knob-twiddling as his primary concern. On the ‘Before’ EP, though, he finds a space where both can exist in harmony, even on the same song, and the end product sounds like something approaching a final form for Blake.
As well as musically meshing together the disparate parts of his career to date, the new EP proves he’s also still firmly dedicated to championing emotional clarity and vulnerability through his lyrics. On ‘Don’t Miss It’, Blake sang: “When you stop being a ghost in a shell, and everybody keeps saying you look well / Don’t miss it,” emerging from years of depression and shrouded emotions with a stunning statement of newfound openness. If ‘Don’t Miss It’ set the groundwork for the new James Blake we see today, ‘Before’ closer ‘Summer Of Now’ is the pay-off.
“I’m not the summer of all my worries, and I’m not the summer of yours / I’m not the summer of 2015, but I can be the summer of now,” he sings, the driving percussion that slowly builds behind him furthering this sense of forward movement and progression. It’s a portrait of reconciling with your past self, finally living in the present, and joyously becoming the person you were always scared to be.
Release date: October 14
Record label: Polydor