James Blake, Assume Form, album review: Euphoric sepia soul and loved-up doo-wop

Blake lets his fourth record evaporate in a warm haze of layered vocals

Helen Brown
Friday 18 January 2019 08:51 GMT
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James Blake’s decor may be going minimalist, but he’s continuing with musical maximalism for his new record
James Blake’s decor may be going minimalist, but he’s continuing with musical maximalism for his new record

Oh, the weather outside is frightful. And the politics sure got spiteful. But the good news is that the perma-brilliant James Blake has flooded his fourth album – Assume Form – with euphoric sepia soul and loved-up doo-wop. His trademark intelligence, honesty and pin-drop production remain intact. But the detached chorister vocals of a decade in which he battled depression have thawed to reveal a millennial Sam Cooke crooning: “Can’t believe the way we flow, way we flow, way we flow...”

Speaking as part of a panel called “You Got This: Managing the Suicide Crisis in the Arts Population” last year, the 30-year-old Mercury prize-winner took aim at the media’s damaging and sexist description of his emotionally vulnerable deconstructed dubstep as “blubstep” and “sad boy music”. He also credited the open heart of his girlfriend (DJ and The Good Place star Jameela Jamil) with helping him evolve beyond years of “surface level” interaction with others.

This personal progress is distilled on “Don’t Miss It”. Released last May and appearing towards the end of this record, the track finds Blake CD-skipping lines about “cyclical thoughts” and “dull pain” into a sickly stutter, before offering the relief of hanging out “with your favourite person everyday”.

The warm splashes of piano that washed over that song also break through the anxious rattle of dance beats on the album’s eponymous opener, the singer so regularly reviewed as “vaporous” promises to “leave the ether, assume form” and “be touchable, be reachable”. His own sharpest critic, he winks at the journalists who’ve called him glacial as he drops from remote, icy falsetto into a richly grained, deeper tone to ask: “Doesn’t it seem much warmer?” There are woody brown strings on “Into the Red”, a song that would surely bring decluttering icon Marie Kondo joy as Blake announces, “The list of things I can live without grows longer as I move everything around behind all the furniture...”

His decor may be going minimalist, but he’s continuing with the musical maximalism of his 2016 third album Overgrown. Assume Form features a texture-shifting cast of guest vocalists, including Outkast’s André 3000, Travis Scott, Metro Boomin and Rosalía. André 3000 appears on “Where’s the Catch”, bursting in on Blake’s precise, poetic description of a romantic, sexual encounter to panic about environmental and economic issues, “exorcism, pessimism ... how many days will it be before I say ‘I told you so?’” An ethereal female vocal then appears to soothe André’s jitters before he and Blake bounce the phrase “everything’s rose” between them in a head-spinning, coin-spinning blur of sincerity and cynicism. It’s a welcome reminder that love can still offer genuine refuge from the increasingly apocalyptic news cycle. And it plays like a bubble of personal bliss in an ocean full of plastic.

Elsewhere, that bubble is allowed to expand and fill entire tracks, as on the glorious “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”, with a melody that consciously echoes and resolves Etta James’ “I Would Rather Go Blind” as the sonic sky around it fills with doo-wop syllables that glow like paper lanterns. “Barefoot in the Park”, featuring Catalonian new flamenco artist Rosalía, who breathes an elegant ruffle of Latin passion onto the spacious dance floor Blake offers her.

“Are You in Love” isn’t really a question. It’s a gospel vow taken before a quirky congregation of retro synth samples and familial stock pre-sets – swelling organ, tinny handclaps an’all. “I try my hardest for you / Are you in love?”

Having assumed form, Blake then lets the album evaporate in a warm haze of layered vocals. “It’s not a failure if you can’t,” he sighs on “Lullaby for My Insomniac”. “In any case you will at some point / Fall / And you’ll forget where you are.” It worked for me. Here’s hoping he can help us all let it go, let it go, let it go.

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