The surprising thing about James Blake, over a decade into his career, isn’t that he wears his heart on his sleeve. Long gone are the days when he – or any man for that matter – should be praised for the simple fact that he’s in touch with his feelings. Instead, Blake continues to impress because of the sheer dexterity and ambition with which he tackles the things that terrify him most. Every betrayal sounds brand new; strange pockets of joy emerge once the clouds start to clear.
‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ stuns in how unexpected it is. Blake could have gone anywhere after his blissed-out 2019 LP ‘Assume Form’, and he did: the ‘Before’ and ‘Covers’ EPs followed last winter, and the former reconnected with Blake’s roots in dance music in a full circle moment that spoke to his strength as a vulnerable lyricist and his skill as a producer. ‘Friends…’ takes both sides further, using the disarming heartbreak of its title as the blueprint for further revelations.
Atmospheric opener ‘Famous Last Words’ initially sounds like the pulsating beat, alongside Blake’s composed delivery, should speak to a relationship in a good place – but, naturally, it’s more complex. “You’re the last of my old things / The cast from my broken limbs” he croons in a twilight moment, scorning himself for still mulling over somebody who never deserved him in the first place.
Across the record, Blake spotlights paradoxes on some of the most spellbinding tracks of his career. Standout track ‘Coming Back’ pairs stark yet shimmering piano chords with bold admissions from a man licking his wounds after an argument, “coming back / tail between my legs” somehow almost giggling on the way home. And then it shifts, getting even better, as SZA features on the rest of the chameleonic track for a fascinating showdown in one of Blake’s most rewarding collaborations to date.
Surprises come from more straightforward moments of happiness, too. The hypnotic ‘I’m So Blessed You’re Mine’ nods to the loved-up energy of last year’s ‘You’re Too Precious’, while mellow lead single ‘Say What You Will’ finds Blake at peace with potential haters, relishing criticism and setting himself free by choosing, quite simply, not to care anymore.
That sense of letting go of long-held fears and apprehensions gives the album its most haunting and enlightening moments. ‘Funeral’ crystallises the eerie in-betweenness of depression as Blake sings, “I know this feeling all too well / of being alive at your own funeral” while the blunt determination of ‘Foot Forward’ finds acquiescence in a breakup from “a bitter aftertaste,” when you know you’re about to be replaced by another lover.
Yet this is not a reckless album made by someone jumping into the abyss, daring to speak truthfully about introspective revelations after years of repression. Blake took that leap of faith a long time ago – perhaps after the blustery post-dubstep of ‘The Colour In Anything’ in 2016 – and now is here to tell us, with wisdom and control, everything he learned on his climb back up to the top. It could only have been made after all the years Blake spent learning to listen to himself.
Insecurity has often fuelled Blake’s professional journey forward while, by his own admission, stymieing his personal growth in the past. And so it makes sense that ‘If I’m Insecure’, an epic and ethereal ode to the bold contradictions of loving another person so deeply while having no idea how to care for yourself, would hit so hard. He asks the questions that have clouded his work for a decade: are you happy? Is this what you wanted? Can you handle it? Is this as good as it gets? His voice has never been so powerful as when speaking these doubts, while a simple, bold organ elevates what may as well be his mission statement into a practically spiritual realm.
Familiar emotionally yet revelatory in its execution, the album sees Blake sing about mundane, almost incidental upsets that sting harder than they should. Piercing lyrics are matched by innovative, fearless production, nowhere better than on the title-track. It’s defined by an almost holy melancholy, with little more than an acoustic guitar colouring sorrowful realisations that “all in love is fair / but it’s not fair” when friends are the ones to bruise and betray you the worst.
There’s a self-awareness that romantic love so often carries this burden, while “nobody prepares you and nobody’s prepared” for the ways such pain can manifest elsewhere. It’s beautiful and uncomfortable stuff – it’s James Blake in his richest, rawest form, still and always shapeshifting to find fascinating new ways to heal.
Release date: October 8
Release label: Polydor Records