James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart

A work of unsettling beauty...

In a recent interview with Clash, James Blake explained how lockdown saw him recenter and reset all his insecurities in light of a larger crisis. It marked another improvement in his career-spanning journey towards finding equanimity, most recently with 2019’s 'Assume Form' and its journey breaking free of the mental turmoil he once swam in. Now romantically self-assured, 'Friends That Break Your Heart' navigates the throes of the affecting friendships in his life. From that design brief, he has created an ethereal alternative to the cavernous Assume Form.  

The stillness of ‘Famous Last Words’ puts full focus on Blake’s lyrics, aptly ushering in his most songwriting-focused project yet. Moreover, it’s his least jagged project, with a pastel atmosphere gently shading around songs. For the James Blake fan who prefers his more abstract electronic tracks, this one may, in fact, break your heart – though those ideas aren’t completely scrubbed off.

Ever the mad conductor, he still manages to sweep electronics through even the most cloudy of instrumentals. It pops up in the gulps of acid bass on ‘Coming Back’ and especially ‘I’m So Blessed You’re Mine’ – a James Blake cocktail of technicolour arpeggios, glassy chords and wordless harmonies to sonically illustrate joy in the presence of an amazing person.

Lyrically, James is reacting to seeing friendships fray, either with heartbreak, fatigue, pleading or acceptance. Explaining these situations is less descriptive than simply showing Blake’s singular lines that sharply sums them up. “It was built in a day, so it fell in a day / What do you expect?” on Foot Forward. “We both swam out to sea / you lost me willingly” on ‘Life Is Not the Same’, which is a highlight despite Take A Daytrip’s production tag being crassly shoved in just before verse #1.

‘Lost Angel Nights’ wrestles with feelings of envy and fears of being replaced, while a couple of duets offer two perspectives: ‘Coming Back’ with SZA and the touchingly despondent ‘Show Me’ with Monica Martin. In each, Blake is caught in a tangled web of thoughts and feelings, dealing with a fallout with lines that violently switch between ego-driven impulses and a longing to reconcile.

Note that most songs here can be applied to a romantic partnership, the same emotional push-and-pull still exists. Though the narrative is not as clear-cut as Assume Form, Friends That Break Your Heart expounds on the similarities between romantic and platonic relationships. And, by extension, their equal worth.

The LP’s home stretch is up there with Blake’s best, not just in the tense penultimate title track and wet-cheeked closer ‘If I’m Insecure’, but on the lead single. ‘Say What You Will’ shows off the magic trick Blake’s perfected by now. Vocally, he’s unsettlingly beautiful.


Words: Nathan Evans // @nayfun_evans

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