James Blake’s ‘Assume Form’ is exuberant, textural addition to musician’s discography

Singer James Blake
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

James Blake is an artist often found in the folds of songs, tucked within his spiralling, technically complex compositions, or even within the production of the many artists he’s collaborated with in the past. His latest album, “Assume Form” however, is marked less by a sense of interiority than by exuberance. It’s less cinematic than previous works and more textural, exhibiting Blake’s engineering skills and the endless refractions of voice and sound he is able to invent.

The album’s namesake and opening track, “Assume Form,” is an exquisite and precise song that deftly serves as a collage of Blake’s superlative skills. It starts with a light piano riff that drifts seamlessly into airy, popping synths, later dipping into soaring strings. All of this is layered over Blake’s voice, weaving in and out, culminating into a series of rhetorical questions: “Doesn’t it get much clearer? / Doesn’t it seem connected? / Doesn’t it get you started? / Doesn’t it make you happier?”

Eventually, these turn into a background loop of warped, autotuned vocals engineered into angelicness, throwing these now unintelligible questions into the void. “Assume Form” is a perfect opening track; it sets the tone, draws you in and reveals just enough to be confessional while not giving all the details away.

This album is notably more upbeat than Blake’s previous works, focusing more on the presence of love in Blake’s life rather than the absence or memory of it. Because of this, the tracks lack some of the cinematic elements that made albums “Overgrown” and “The Colour in Anything,” exchanging drama for a newfound sort of romanticism. This isn’t to say, however, that this exchange is an empty trade off — in some of the spaces that could have soared in melodramatics, they are rather tightened into precise textures and soundscapes.

“Mile High” and “Tell Them,” from the album’s first half, are two standout tracks. “Mile High” features previous Blake collaborators Metro Boomin and Travis Scott, who offer a simultaneously calculated and liberated flow that circles around Blake’s vocals, ultimately culminating in a satisfying harmony amidst Metro Boomin’s flutey, spacious beat.

“Tell Them” also features production from Metro Boomin, as well as vocals from Moses Sumney, whose textured voice adds depth and dimension to the strings-backed beat.

The only sort of weak elements on this album come in the form of sometimes sappy lyrics, though the musicality is consistently a marvel. “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” and “I’ll Come Too” stand strong on their own, but pale in comparison to some of the more profound tracks on the album. Both tracks struggle to not dissolve into their own lyricism, competing within themselves to truly shine.

A track that is not lyrically indulgent but engaging in more poetic stylings is “Where’s the Catch,” featuring André 3000. It’s a spiralling staircase of a song, spinning around a simple four-note piano riff, which in the minor key offers a sense of tensions. André 3000 raps: “We build and discover gold / Alchemists make it silver before you know it / Negative nickels until it’s void / Aluminum foil it back to soil, oh yeah.” This sense of something impending is amplified by the song’s final run, peaking into a harmony of Blake and André 3000 singing “Everything’s rose” over a weird but fitting marimba line — it’s a tense and catchy song, and provides a needed moment of ominousness in the otherwise lovey dovey album.

The album ends on an excellent complement to the opening track, eschewing the unevenness of some of the middle tracks to conclude on a fully realized note. “Lullaby For My Insomniac” is brief, only a few lines of lyrics, and finds space in moments of brief silence. Where “Assume Form” is a what’s what of Blake’s signatures, “Lullaby” sheds these techniques to their critical parts. The song is essentially instrument-less, with just layered, soaring vocals offering a final exultation to the object of his love: “If you can’t / I’ll stay up, I’ll stay up too / I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow / If you do.” The last notes fade out slowly, dissipating like the blurry vision of tired eyes falling asleep. This song, like much of the album, is poetic and tender, a testament to Blake’s expert musicality.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].