What’s so good about James Blake? Few artists have done more to shape the last decade of music, few have spawned as many imitators, few have garnered such a range of A-list admirers and collaborators. But why? Maybe it’s that quivering choirboy voice of his on ballads like “Waves No Shores” and Joni Mitchell cover “A Case of You,” songs that make you want to pinch his little cheeks and take him home to your mum. Or perhaps it’s his taste for bass, for tunes that make you gurn, veritable bangers like “CMYK,” his remix of Mala’s “Changes,” and his Chance the Rapper collaboration, “Life Round Here.”
Of course, it’s both. When Blake emerged roughly a decade ago, he turned heads by matching the heavy with the tender, winning fans among listeners of pop, dubstep, and everything in between. He was immensely likeable—loveable in fact. Invite to your wedding: he’ll play piano at the ceremony and DJ the get-down at the reception. A puller of heartstrings and a twiddler of knobs, he could make you cry or dance—sometimes in the same song. On Assume Form, his fourth studio album released just a week after its official announcement, he doesn't really do either.
In many ways, Blake epitomises a decade of hybridity in music; until his futuristic take on the singer-songwriter model, it would have been hard to imagine Sam Smith, FKA Twigs, or even Arca being received in such rapture. And yet although the mainstream is now dominated by such cross-genre combinations, today’s archetypal pop song resembles not the simplified beauty of “The Wilhelm Scream,” but rather an unrefined mulch of catholic influence ranging from rap to house to reggaeton—all of which swirl in the Assume Form mix. Is Blake now just another of his own impersonators?
It’s hard to argue otherwise on the distinctly middlebrow “Barefoot In The Park,” a collaboration with breakout Spanish pop star Rosalía. The song’s refrain paints a quaint watercolour of Blake and his celebrity squeeze Jameela Jamil frolicking round a picnic on a summer’s day, looking beautiful. “Barefoot in the park,” he coos, before turning a dainty image of romance into one of gross public affection: “you start rubbing off on me.” Grimace. “Are You In Love?” is similarly moist, a contented yawn of a song that you can imagine Sampha recording then leaving on the cutting room floor. Ditto “Power On”: both sound like rip-offs of “Limit To Your Love.”
Then there are some songs which start off tepid, become lukewarm, and emit flickers of Blake’s usual brilliance. “Into The Red” pushes irritating lyrical themes about joint accounts and credit card debt, saved only by a gorgeous piano loop and skip-hopping beat. Similarly the opener and title track isn't bad, but it actually becomes good in its second half, as a hard-to-decipher backing vocal—presumably Blake pitched up—rocks us peacefully back and forth. (Incidentally that chipmunk voice returns a few times, even offering something of a late reprieve to “Barefoot In The Park.”)
True to the present look of the pop charts, Assume Form is Blake’s most rap-leaning record to date. “Mile High,” featuring Travis Scott and hip-hop producer Metro Boomin, is a murky trap track, the darkest cut on the record. When its beat drops (and yes, there’s a snare on the three) it’s also the closest the album comes to a banger. That can’t be said of “Where’s the Catch,” featuring André 3000. Despite its minor key, the song is actually about snogging: “we kiss so long, we breathe through the nose.” Wince. In contrast to André’s caustic verse, Blake’s outpourings resemble another ostentatious expression of love to make onlookers squirm in their seats. Didn't Blake used to sing about being sad?
The artist spoke candidly about depression in an interview last year, and has emerged sounding incessantly satisfied with his life. And good for him. But Assume Form reminds me of a Bill Hicks routine which scorned contemporary pop music’s clean-cut cheer, instead willing musicians to “play with one hand and put a gun to their head with the other.” I’ll stop well short of wishing misery on our beloved crooner, but Blake’s fourth album is simply not as raw and compelling as his previous three, all of which were wrought with inner torment.
It’s tempting to argue that Assume Form is almost a good album, offering sparks of magnificence without delivering on its promise. The argument largely stands up: take album closer “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” a subtly pleasant hymn which is begging for the kind of bass drop that made “Retrograde” so arresting. But actually Assume Form is almost a crap album, just not quite. And while it's easy to criticise Blake’s chart-pandering forays into trap and pop, it is actually Assume Form’s most unashamed pop songs that rescue it from insufferable drabness.
“Can’t Believe The Way We Flow,” named after a sample from the Manhattans’ “It Feels So Good to Be Loved So Bad” (and thankfully not a Blake-Jamil rap duet), is oddly brilliant. With its refrain sung first in chipmunk falsetto and then in Blake baritone, it bears the stamp of Oneohtrix Point Never, who helped out on production.
Odd brilliance makes “I’ll Come Too” another highlight. In the vein of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (and Frank Ocean’s “Self Control”), Blake coos cheekily about snuggling in between two lovers, simply because he’s “in that kind of mood." It’s sung in a lilting melody that you can imagine being whistled in an old Western. I know, right: cringe? The same could be said about “Don’t Miss It” and its iPhone notes lyric video—it’s ‘playing from the heart’ for the Snapchat generation, but both songs have me listening repeatedly.
It’s partly thanks to Blake that the hybridised pop on Assume Form is nowhere near as remarkable as it once would have been. It’s an inconsistent album, indicating an artist who was once at the vanguard of a new sound becoming just one voice among many others like it. No longer the singer-songwriter of the future, he’s now simply a modern writer of songs. Thankfully, as shown in glimpses here, he’s still pretty good at it.
01. Assume Form
02. Mile High (featuring Travis Scott & Metro Boomin)
03. Tell Them (featuring Moses Sumney, Metro Boomin)
04. Into The Red
05. Barefoot In The Park (featuring Rosalía)
06. Can’t Believe The Way We Flow
07. Are You In Love?
08. Where’s The Catch? (featuring André 3000)
09. I’ll Come Too
10. Power On
11. Don’t Miss It
12. Lullaby For My Insomniac
Assume Form is out now via Republic Records.