James Blake has always been far more than the ‘sad boy’ he’s so often pinned as. Whether it’s cracking jokes on stage, inviting Stephen Merchant onto his Radio 1 Residency to play the part of the fictitious DJ Badger, or churning out fiver-on-the-door, techno-heavy club nights with his 1800-Dinosaur collective, his temperament has often been tangential to his lovelorn music.
That is, until ‘The Colour In Anything’. The producer-singer’s third full-length, released back in 2016, became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – his most heartbroken, downtrodden music to date, it preceded a period of intense anxiety and depression. A touch over-long and a whole heap of miserable, ‘The Colour In Anything’ felt like a depressive episode put to tape. It’s little surprise that a widely-circulated note viciously biting back at the ‘sad boy’ label followed.
“I’ve always found that expression to be unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings,” he wrote. “We are already in an epidemic of male depression and suicide. We don’t need any further proof that we have hurt men with our questioning of their need to be vulnerable and open.” A remarkably frank message from an artist more used to obscuring his face with blurred artwork and his voice with digital effects, it was a tonal shift that’s carried over to ‘Assume Form’, his new LP.
‘Assume Form’ finds James Blake clear-headed and in focus like never before. The influence of his new partner (actor Jameela Jamil) can be felt throughout – it’s no exaggeration, nor a disregarding of James’ own strength, to say that she’s lifted him out of his mental rut. “I met my girlfriend and there was no room for pretence,” he told Dazed. “She speaks her mind. It was like, ‘Tell me how you feel. Tell me what you’re thinking.’ In my everyday life, I wasn’t being encouraged to sit behind metaphor or sit behind long silences or be in a mood without explaining what it’s about.”
Sonically, the album’s opening title-track sets that newfound clarity front-and-centre. Gone is the hazy, south London night bus ambience of Blake gone by. In its place is a newfound sharpness, a twinkle of grand piano signalling the record’s arrival, while, lyrically, the musician pushes through the cloudy mindset that once consumed him. “Doesn’t it seem much warmer, just knowing the sun will be out?” he asks as the track segues into the Travis Scott-featuring ‘Mile High’, itself a burst of vibrancy, helped in no small part by Scott’s woozy flow and a wobbly Metro Boomin beat. As Blake pitches his own vocal down, and the rapper’s up, they meet in the middle for a note of reassurance: “Don’t want to see you by yourself.”
That tone is core to ‘Assume Form’. ‘Into The Red’ is Blake’s most stunning ballad to date, an ode to Jamil that paints her as a figure who stood by him through the “gold rush” of success and subsequent depression. “While I haven’t been living until now / Even doing nothing I am making the most of somehow,” he sings, “And the credit goes to her as the bad days become rare.” It’s a beautiful admission of love, which avoids the tragic flip-side of his past ruminations on relationships. ‘Barefoot In The Park’, featuring rising Spanish star Rosalia, follows suit: “What you’ve done for me, who needs to hallucinate?”, he asks, “Who needs balance? I’ll see you every day.”
The much-touted Andre 3000 feature on ‘Where’s The Catch?” is, unsurprisingly, an album highlight. A sharply prodded piano line is paired with pitch-shifted, heavily clipped vocal effects and even a screech of blown-out guitar solo more befitting of a hair metal group –by the time Andre appears, spitting of how “exorcism, pessimism has arisen”, the track has already proven Blake to be one of Britain’s best producers. As it all melts away, and then snaps back to life, he’s proven to be one of the world’s greatest – those Beyoncé call-ups suddenly seem much less shocking.
‘Assume Form’ ends with the sweet ‘Lullaby For My Insomniac’, another seemingly Jamil-facing track. “I’ll stay up too,” he sings, “I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow if you do.” It’s a nod to his past life – one that saw the cover of his debut album smudged beyond recognition. It’s a fitting end note to James Blake’s work to date – proof that he’s finally in control.