Tuesday, January 22, 2019

album review: 'assume form' by james blake

So am I the only one who is a little bit surprised there's so much hype surrounding this album? Or indeed around James Blake at all - I get that he's quietly racked up the sort of credits and connections for production details and work you'd be hard-pressed to notice, but it's not exactly the sort that seems designed to build a following, let alone a mainstream one.

Granted, it's not like James Blake has been entirely in the indie scene - he's had hip-hop verses as early as his second album Overgrown, of which I go back and forth whether it's better than his debut, and again, he's had credits on songs with Beyonce and Kendrick. And I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that he'd have crossover appeal - in comparison with any number of experimental electronic artists he's probably one of the most accessible - but I remember in my review of The Colour In Anything that I said I wasn't sure if he'd ever cross over, or if he even wanted that. Granted, if said crossover was going to help him tighten up a flabby album that lacked a lot of the character that made his first two projects so striking - seriously, that album has aged rather poorly since 2016 and I think I was too nice on it even then - I wasn't going to be against that, but I was skeptical about this. While Overgrown had credits from the RZA and Brian Eno and The Colour Of Anything had Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, this album... has credits from Metro Boomin and Travis Scott. Now granted, it also has a verse from Andre 3000 and the critics have been praising this to high heavens so I had reason to believe this could be great, so does James Blake deliver on Assume Form?

So here's the thing: when I was initially structuring this review and going through my first few listens, nearly all the critical reception that James Blake had been receiving with this album had been rave reviews... and to the surprise of a lot of folks, the indifferent to outright mixed reviews started dropping. And what I find genuinely funny upon reading all of this is the sense of shocked indignity that permeated many of the mixed reviews, that James Blake had made a sudden change from their projected veneer of his personality and art. And while I won't deny that Blake has shifted his overall approach and sound, when going through the content and framing I'm not at all surprised that James Blake wound up here, which may have been to the detriment of previous projects but actually winds up working pretty damn well here. Now does that mean I like or love this album? Well, let's not get hasty here, as I'm still not quite sure if this project quite matches his self-titled album or Overgrown - it is absolutely better than The Colour Of Anything, though - but I can say while those first projects could absolutely monopolize a specific vibe, Assume Form has a versatility and flair that's not only more accessible, but in a funny way feels more honest.

And I think to explain that we need to start with James Blake himself and a necessary misconception that needs to be cleared: for as much as there was a detached, melancholic edge in Blake's soulful delivery, he was never so much the 'sadboi' that music writers branded him. He was thoughtful and pensive, internally focused to the expense of damn near everyone else, but he absolutely had an ego that could actually clash with the content of some of his relationship songs, which didn't really translate well when he swamped himself in dampening reverb that only served to isolate him further. Hell, there were significant chunks of The Colour Of Anything where that tonal dissonance between his content and the sound created a sourness that was about the worst possible emotion to stick amidst the dreary soundscapes. And what I like about Assume Form is that, right from the start, James Blake is at least making the effort to not detach, which reframes the ego that runs through this album with a different tone - he's upfront about tempering his soulful side with a bit more confidence or at least the sense that he might be enjoying some of the fruits of his success and love. And that means he's using a little less of his falsetto... well, I'm fine with that too, I've always liked Blake's midrange and when he brings in more vocal harmonies like on the superb 'Power On', he sounds great.

Now, if you want to ask the question of how convincing he is delivering that sentiment, that's a different question and takes us into the production and compositions, where Blake is stepping across a broader palette this time from his downbeat, autotuned R&B to slightly rougher atmospheric trap to even touches of vintage pop with passages most reminiscent of the mid-60s or even some soul from the mid-to-late 70s thanks to The Manhattans' sample on 'Can't Believe The Way We Flow'. And all of it graced with a touch of opulence that does stand in contrast to the restrained, almost-folk touches of previous projects. Which yes, you can't deny it's less obviously tasteful that previous projects, but that mirrors the content and coupled with a tighter structure and a bit more melodic groove gives the album a fair bit more momentum, able to play with jarring dramatic contrast a little more effectively in composition while the production remains restrained, if not precisely subtle. The strings are only used as accents but they're lush and full touching off the title track and even better off of 'Are You In Love?' and 'I'll Come Too', but never precisely decadent as James Blake balances things with the increasingly brittle percussion and more steady vocal layering, a give-and-take between organic and synthetic foundation that compliments Blake's vocals and the passionate swings he takes on this project. And that's before we get to the darker, trap-inflected cuts - and to my surprise, I actually preferred Travis Scott's bleary-eyed chemistry with Blake on the hedonistic 'Mile High' to the discomfort of the one-night stand running long on 'Tell Them' with Moses Sumney's cracking falsetto. But of course the biggest standout is the stalking murky beat of 'Where's The Catch', that creaks and stutters even as Andre 3000 drops into a ruthlessly focused verse that balances against the overthought suspicion from Blake - even when they chop things to ribbons on the outro, it's a really effective moment. On the flip side, I will say that some of the percussion choices can lend to a weirdly cheap-feeling density that doesn't really fit the atmosphere, most notable with the rattle against Rosalia's breathy delivery on 'Barefoot In The Park', or the oddly tinny autotune on 'Into The Red'.

But really, these are all surrounding the arc of this album, in which Blake emerges from his cocoon of detached ego to extend some passion - and really, your mileage may vary depending on how pompous it can come across. For me the worst moment hit on 'Into The Red', which shows him a little too enamored with how much she's overextending herself for him and not quite showing the self-awareness to realize he's never quite done the same - at least not on that song. Indeed, as the arc of the album proceeds and we get cuts like 'Are You In Love?', it serves as a bit of a demystification of his assumptions, which leads into real insecurities returning on 'Where's The Catch' and highlighting just how fragile that ego might be. And if there's an emotional sentiment James Blake knocks out of the park here, it comes from the risk of engagement: you might be able to ride detached flow for so long, but for something real to materialize it involves engagement and a challenge to the ego. And it's why I'm actually more forgiving of the self-focused broad romantic gestures that he attempts on 'I'll Come Too', which has that faint hint of desperation that he's too reserved to ever fully express but cuts through regardless - mostly because it's way more relatable than I'd like to admit. And 'Power On' goes deeper in admitting his own presumptions, one of the most stark the one where he was placing his art second to her - all the more ironic given how much his art has revolved around her, another unintentionally revealing moment. And that's one reason why Blake himself has described 'Don't Miss It' as the inner monologue of an egomaniac because he could so easily escape swaddle himself in detachment - and man, he knows it - but it has resulted in so many emotional experiences brushed aside or muted, and while that risk to his ego is palpable... he wouldn't miss it for the world.

So as a whole... you know, I definitely understand the criticisms of this album, as these sorts of emotional swings could read as jarring coming from a presence who before this coasted on detachment, from production to delivery to content. But this awkwardness has paradoxically translated to stronger grooves, better melodic hooks, and a challenge to artistic and emotional reserve where the more naked moments feel earned, even if the process to get there can feel a bit tonally misshapen. And make no mistake, those stumbles in execution do hold this album back from greatness for me - the self-awareness can be inconsistent and the album absolutely feels transitional - but the potential revealed with Assume Form is exciting and I definitely think Blake is on a fascinating path, netting a solid 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation for me. Folks, you can mostly believe the hype with this one, and while it's an easy jump-on point, I'd argue it's even more resonant as an advancement from previous records. It's a great step in an interesting direction, so make the time and check it out.

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