For someone who’s traditionally been pigeonholed, it’s ironic that James Blake is now facing the opposite problem on his latest record.
You see, Blake has since inhabited a multitude of personas throughout his illustrious career. Bursting out as a mysterious pioneer of post-dubstep, his minimalist, melancholic poetry and soulful vocals established him as indie’s ‘sad boy’, a label he would come to rightfully denounce. From there, Blake assumed the form of a modern troubadour, and casually managed to become an impossibly cool producer for some of hip-hop’s biggest names. The 34-year-old Londoner is enviously versatile, but he lets that get the better of him on ‘Playing Robots Into Heaven’, where his many talents unfurl into an unfocused vision of futuristic club.
Returning to his love for modular synths, ‘Playing Robots’ tries to refine Blake’s vision of club music by offering us plenty of unusual Blakeian textures. The restrained, revving bass of ‘Big Hammer’ bursting out into a Ragga Twins sample, or ‘Night Sky’ and its stuttering panpipe synth are some of the sonic delights Blake serves to us. A personal highlight is the entirety of ‘I Want You To Know’; the ghostly Burial-inspired beat and rippling vocal arpeggios masterfully reinterprets Blake’s glacial soundscapes.
Blake also takes some big swings by playing around with off-kilter rhythms to varying degrees of success. The jittering lead synth in ‘Tell Me’ is an interesting twist on the drop, and provides one of the most cathartic moments on the album which will definitely be incredible to experience live. The same cannot be said for the worst track on the record, ‘He’s Been Wonderful’, which tries to pin five totally incompatible ideas against an awkward polyrhythm.
The problem is that these tracks are juxtaposed against multiple personas that struggle to co-exist in ‘Playing Robots’. Occasionally this is complementary; Balladeer James resurfaces in ‘If You Can Hear Me’, the most overtly poignant track of the record whose sentiment. But then there’s the staid, stiff rhythms of ‘Fire The Editor’ and ‘Asking To Break’, an opener that retreads the familiar contours of ‘Assume Form’ without adding much to Blake’s sound.
‘Playing Robots’ finds Blake not quite knowing how to juggle all these facets of his personality and throwing them all at the wall. There are flashes of gorgeous phrasing, incredible textures, and welcome experimentation, but the album is also completely all over the place. Still, Blake remains undeniably talented as a singer, songwriter and producer; hopefully, ‘Playing Robots’ is a necessary stumble into more exciting territory.
Words: Alex Rigotti