A flourish of lounge piano marks the arrival of 'Assume Form', the fourth full length from electronic minimalist James Blake.
Like his contemporary Jamie xx, Blake has garnered praise for his sparse, haunting soundscapes, stripping each track back to its bare bones. Yet, the flipside of such subtlety is that, initially, there doesn’t seem much to grab hold of. While his singular vision is to be admired, it comes at the expense of variation – the sedate pace remains constant, as if it’s building up to something that never quite gets started.
Beautifully understated or simply underwhelming? It takes until track eight (‘Where’s The Catch’) for an audible beat to arrive. So, when it finally breaks into a relatively docile four- to-the-floor kick drum groove complete with shuffling 808 handclaps, it feels like a bolt of lightning. There’s no instant gratification here.
But, as he sings on ‘Mile High’, less is always more. And with repeated listens, 'Assume Form' gradually sink its claws into your skin. When you really listen, a mature and accomplished album reveals itself. Within the apparent emptiness, there’s a huge amount going on. 'Assume Form' isn’t a radical reinvention, but more a refinement. Live strings, for example, bring an organic warmth missing in some of his formative work.
As with his last effort, the ambient soundscapes increasingly serve as a backdrop for more conventional songwriting. No longer hiding behind the production, he’s finding the confidence to use his voice unadulterated. And lyrically, he has a lot to get off his chest. 'Assume Form' finds Blake at his most direct. In July 2018, he opened up about his struggles with mental health, as referenced in ‘Power On’: “I thought I was better off dead / I thought I’d never find my place...” However, he counters these statements with “but I was wrong”.
Blake’s output has often had a dark, claustrophobic undertone to it (most excellently manifested previously on ‘Radio Silence’). But although a darkness still prevails, he’s generally more optimistic in tone, declaring in the opener: “I will assume form”.
‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ is a gorgeous, dreamy slice of soul – a lost Motown classic, albeit pushed through the Blake prism. ‘I’ll Come Too’ continues the buoyant mood, bringing a lightness of touch and playfulness, which the album is all the better for.
In a somewhat unexpected move James Blake has become the go-to man among the US hip-hop glitterati seeking to add a little indie gravitas to their output. Arguably, he’s at his best when bouncing off others, and the guest spots provide colour and counterpoints without overstaying their welcome. ‘Tell Them’ (featuring Moses Sumney and Metro Boomin) is an early highlight, skipping along on a light trap beat.
Meanwhile, Catalonian singer, Rosalia adds another dimension on ‘Barefoot In The Park’. But the stand-out track is the aforementioned ‘Where’s The Catch’, with Andre 3000 flowing on top form. The perfect come-down music, 'Assume Form' is not one to listen to while driving (especially if it’s a long journey at night).
That said, in an age of over-saturation where everything vies for your attention, Blake’s skeletal arrangements are a refreshing antidote.
Words: Felix Rowe
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