Anyone familiar with pop culture today knows that James Blake is the music world’s resident sad boi. His archive of musical ventures seem to reflect that this is a man fighting against a multitude of demons — an artist plagued by loneliness, existential crises and a disillusionment with reality. But on March 12, cradled in the smoke and purple lights of Fox Theater, it appeared his battle against these hellish demons was over.
In a long black coat and matching scarf, the shaggy-haired singer took the stage in silence, completely unprovoked by the screaming crowd. But soon after, he broke his quiet, reserved presence as he passionately launched into “Assume Form,” the title track from his latest album. A song about leaving one’s head and joining the world, Blake grounded this performance through his keyboard, gliding his fingers over the ivory keys and making a tangible connection to the music at hand.
Blake walked a thin line between a solemn, down-to-earth attitude and a divine energy throughout the show. While he was constantly present and connected to the audience, humbly thanking the crowd throughout his set, he carried the almost other-worldly spirit of a confident, free soul.
In his performance of “Mile High,” Blake’s celestial vocal vibrato mingled with the gritty background track of Travis Scott’s verse thumping through the venue. By shaping his crooning to complement Scott’s vocal track, Blake flexed his skill in musical composition, as well as his ability to uplift another musical voice without minimizing his own. And the audience was undoubtedly enthused by this, jubilantly bouncing to the slick sounds of Scott while swaying along to Blake’s parts.
Of course, Blake did not abandon his former angsty persona. Many of his popular power ballads of missed connections and dystopia were highlighted throughout the night. But with his performances of “Life Round Here” and “Limit To Your Love,” Blake brought an entirely original and entirely brighter energy to his older songs.
“Retrograde,” one of Blake’s most popular songs, includes lyrics such as “You’re on your own” and “And your friends are gone / And your friends won’t come,” underscoring an undeniable and haunting theme of abandonment. But Blake shedded that cocoon of darkness without changing the fundamental components of the track. Instead, in his buoyant engagement with his keyboard and his raspy, aching soprano drifting out to the crowd, he embodied a triumphant persona rather than a defeated one.
And though he showcased his multifaceted talents as a musician with new embodiments of older songs, his latest releases were the night’s real showstoppers. “Barefoot in the Park,” featuring Rosalía’s EDM flamenco vocals setting a tropical bolero tone, was a effervescent, smooth number that again accentuated Blake’s collaborative skill.
Assume Form was an album unlike any of the others filling Blake’s rolodex. In the folds of this collection are records of his travels and his evolution. Songs like “I’ll Come Too” represent that Blake is not done growing, but that he knows what he wants and is ready to be happy. This track — along with the rest of the album — serves as a catalogue of his struggles, his insecurities and his ultimate discovery of both love of self and love of another.
And on the stage at the Fox Theater, Blake spilled the contents of this diary out to the audience, letting them know that his long trek toward some unknown satisfaction is maybe — just maybe — complete.
He found his home, he found his heaven.
With the melodic hymns of “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” Blake tucked the crowd in, leaving them to somnambulate out of the venue, heads swarming with the very dreamy but very real notion that anyone can evolve to find their place — and it doesn’t mean you have to lose your voice in the process.
Maisy Menzies is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].