James Blake’s ‘Assume Form’ [Album Review]
James Blake‘s sound has evolved immensely throughout his career the only constant being range. The talent with percussion and electronic music he displayed in the late 2000s had people fascinated—the young man had abandoned the “by the book” recipe for dubstep, and instead added new ingredients that would shape and propel the genre into the next decade. He was unprecedented in his ability to add emotion and anatomy to dubstep’s early days of flashy formlessness, and many followed suit. It was difficult to get real emotion from just electronic percussion, but technology and Blake’s emotional awareness coupled with his ability to express those feelings came together in perfect harmony. The CMYK EP which sampled both Kelis and Aaliyah is a great example of how skilled he was at this even back then. Blake has consistently created a form of musical futurism through vulnerability.
Blake continued to explore his honest and empathetic expression of melancholy that drew in listeners. At the same time, he moved from percussion to a more melodic approach. After critics praised the release of his 2011 self-titled debut album, listeners not only resonated with his tone but became familiar with it. He created moody, abstract, and contemporary songs tied together by his voice. His unrelenting effort to understand the technology developing in front of him created a freshness to each track. It is clear through James Blake he decided to take the path of most resistance, to have to force himself to learn more to express himself the way he wanted. Through doing, so he kept coming up on top.
In 2013, his sophomore studio album featuring Brain Eno and RZA, Overgrown, made Blake a household name for music lovers. “Retrograde” alone may very well be a perfect song. His echoing hums, masterful percussion, songwriting, and digital originality brought chills not only from the music but also the feelings of absolute helplessness people tend to ignore the music evoked. Blake created a musical representation of the vastness of space and the speed of which one travels through it, and despite the difficulty of staring at the void, Blake gave people a way to hear it. This gift may have held Blake back a bit; the bar is high when your music has made listeners grow on such an intrinsic level.
Thankfully, people tend to come together when faced with reality. Within just a few years Blake released The Colour In Anything, a somber album much more pop-oriented than his previous works but also perhaps too drab for its own good. However, he toured with it beautifully and made a point of touring with Vince Staples and Moses Sumney to create a completely unique musical experience—one that transcended genre and in fact challenged it. Despite the live experience, the album as a whole was somewhat unfocused and did not have anything like “Retrograde” on it. The standout track was arguably his collaboration with fellow genre transcender Bon Iver, “I Need a Forest Fire.”
The buck didn’t stop at The Colour In Anything. Blake has since worked with Beyonce, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-soul, Future, Jay-Z, Anderson .Paak, Frank Ocean, The London Contemporary Orchestra, Kid, Cudi, Stevie Wonder, Mount Kimbie, and many more.
After nearly three years of collaboration, industry growth, and self-reflection Blake has released what could be his most popular and defining album. Assume Form is composed of 12 tracks, each encompassing Blake’s vocal skill and mastery of production, emotion, and technology. But it’s very different. Blake has taken on something more pressing than the void: he’s taken on dissecting the nature of romantic love.
Assume Form starts with the title track, a ballad of a man accepting his past to take on the weight that is love. It begins light with a soft eloquent arpeggio. Followed by the softly sung hopes in Blake’s classic somber and melodic tone. As the song progresses it gets deeper, heavier, percussion taps creating time, soon a low voice speaks, “It feels like a thousand-pound weight holding your body down in a pool of water barely reaching your chin,” then again, heavenly arpeggios, strings, divine tones, balance, and acceptance. The track ends with Blake asking “Doesn’t it feel much warmer/ just knowing the sun will be out?”
The next two tracks feature Metro Boomin. The first “Mile High” has Travis Scott returning the favor for Blake’s hand with Astroworld. “Mile High” is a slow jam, burning at high temperatures, perfect for driving at night. Trap rolls accompany a contemporary R&B melody. Travis Scott sounds as one would expect, his fine-tuned voice giving form and hype when needed. What’s surprising here is how sensual and low James Blake vocals are. He really took on a different approach than usual, but then again, the flow of this track is very unique as well thanks to Metro Boomin.
“Tell Them” features Metro Boomin and Moses Sumney. Sumney and Blake harmonize, over a Metro Boomin’s beats. Somney is known for his angelic voice that reaches almost biblical heights sonically, and he has a presence to match. However, the individual aspects of the artists are difficult to discern in “Tell Them.” Metro Boomin has a hold on the track and it is his production connects the sounds and holds the listeners’ attention. Through these two tracks, Blake shows how deep his understanding for R&B and hip-hop runs, and it is very deep.
“Barefoot in the Park” is perhaps the most beautiful track of the album. It’s lovely despite being in a minor key. Delicate harps and whispers dance over an elusive floor, creating an abstract heavenly space before ROSALIA’s sensual vocals enter the room like sunlight from the golden hour on unsuspecting walls. She sings in Spanish beautifully distant yet unspeakably close. Blake then comes in singing. Throwing caution into the wind in a much more free way than listeners are accustom to. Soon after they are harmonizing in English, “Barefoot in the park you start rubbing off on me.” Their harmony is perfect unity, it’s quite like listening to love. The distance, the unfamiliarity, and the joy of connection during fruition. The song fades out as it came in—a delicate close to a perfect occurrence.
Blake furthers his experience of understanding love through the track “Are You In Love?” He expresses the doubt that comes with love. He reserves his right to disappear, he holds on to freedom granting him security but promises his lover their place in his heart forever. He questions them if that place in them is as sure as his and childishly nods to the delicate nature of real love and his ability to break it. These questions are in all people and that makes this song something original. Love songs are typically campy and focus on the good, they ignore the childish and often destructive response that comes with the fear love brings with it. Much like with “Retrograde” Blake has given listeners an avenue to contemplate difficult notions and questions through sound.
Hype ensued after Blake premiered a sample of the track “Where’s The Catch?” featuring Andre 3000 in Brooklyn back in December. It was clearly a heater back then, but in its full glory it really holds up. Andre 3000 says, “alright now this may be a little heady, I hate heady ass verses, but I wrote this shit so here we go.” Andre 3000’s lyrical skill flows perfectly to the piano’s composition and shuffle evoking beat Blake has set up for him.”Where’s The Catch?” is a true collaboration. In relation to the theme of love the track instills doubt through its sound but instead of looking inward for answers the track forces the listener to look outward. Though there is no sure answer to the doubts coming forth there is a feeling of calmness and completion through the groove.
The album closes with “Lullaby For My Insomniac.” This deeply personal song comes off like breathing. The synth in the background is locked in with Blakes vocals—two lovers in bed breathing at the same pace. The song penetrates deeper and deeper into the listener’s soul. It subtlety gains volume, reverberating off gothic church walls, cementing the idea that love is like God. It’s elusive as sleep and requires attention and bravery.
Assume Form is an exquisite look inward about an unspeakable concept. It transcends genre and expectation. Each track is a conquest over an idea; a fear or a revelation and the celebration that the idea came to pass. It’s an album that allows joy and doubt to dance not in just through one song but through the entire course of the album, something Blake was yet to accomplish until this release.
One may question does Assume Form achieve its goal? After listening fully, one realizes there was no goal. Assume Form was made by someone asking the most important question the best way they knew how, and in doing so shed light on how unfathomable the true beauty of our most powerful emotion truly is.