James Blake’s ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ is melancholy, only temporary

Photo of James Blake album cover
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In 2011, the music of then-emerging English musician James Blake could be perfectly described as the meticulous, mournful sound of lonely winter. 10 years later, the now LA-based artist is at his most grounded, and the accompanying sonic shifts — while gradual — could not feel more pronounced. Blake’s latest LP, Friends That Break Your Heart, seems to herald an entirely new era of sound — the flowery, temperate yet tame spring of his career. 

A heavily sought-after producer once cited as Kanye West’s favorite artist, Blake now works alongside the industry mainstays who desired his collaborative touch. With Friends That Break Your Heart, the artist embraces this bona fide stardom like never before. The album recounts, in nonspecific terms, the fallout of various relationships that have come and gone. Opener “Famous Last Words” gently drops listeners in on Blake floating through his feelings as he accounts for all the changes. “I’ve truly lost it this time,” he sings sweetly before the chorus, alluding to a connection he won’t let go of as he surveys the remains. “You’re the last of my old things.”

It’s a continuation of Blake’s declaration to “leave the ether,” a journey he set out on 2019’s Assume Form. Here, that move feels nearly complete. Across its 12 songs, Blake himself becomes the focus —  the spacious, haunting soundscapes he once roamed like a ghostly specter have almost entirely receded, giving his choir-boy vocals and sincerity a chance to carry the weight. Emotional lyricism and a strong sense of relatability power this latest batch of songs, moving Blake closer into the realm of brooding pop balladry. Think (much) less Bon Iver, (much) more Sam Smith.

But some threads to the past remain. Blake’s ear for angelic vocal harmonies carry over, and melancholy — as always — is the mood of choice. A selection of hip-hop/R&B features (commonplace on any James Blake release since 2013) are peppered throughout the tracklist. Like those previous releases, there’s also an uplifting, gospel-tinged album closer (“If I’m Insecure”); all reliable, competent elements that make for a mildly enjoyable listen but also, as an unintended side effect, continue the trend of the artist’s work becoming increasingly easier to map out and predict. 

Here, that means serviceable contributions — from big names such as SZA and JID, as well as Metro Boomin co-sign SwaVay —  find their way onto songs that are pleasant but entirely unsurprising additions to Blake’s catalog. SZA features on “Coming Back,” trading verses with Blake over plinky piano chords which transition into a smooth, glowing trap beat. The latter two join in on “Frozen,” where their vocals are pitched and distorted high and low as the eerie, slow-crawling instrumental induces the auditory equivalent of a thermostat steadily dropping below zero.

There are spots where Blake falls back on love, displaying his devotion through the repetitive trance of “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” and unhurried tenderness on “Lost Angel Nights.” But these moments tend to blur together, lost and easily forgotten on an album where the overarching tone is one of resignation. There’s an undercurrent of warmth and a vague elegance to these songs, but little else to really hold attention. 

On “Say What You Will,” Blake essentially accepts these shortcomings, coming close to what sounds like fearlessness. “I’m OK with the life of the sunflower,” he croons in his lower register, embracing the impermanence of his current state of being as the track steadily sails along. Never before has he sounded so comfortable, self-assured and resolute. 

By contrast, the rare moments that break through the mellow feeling are when Friends That Break Your Heart is at its most compelling. It’s why the high-pitched wail on “Life Is Not the Same,” the album’s strongest song, is the closest thing to some real tension, cutting through the soft atmosphere like a knife. It stands out on an expectedly well-made album that is, unfortunately, sorely lacking in memorable moments, unlike the deep wounds of heartbreak — platonic, romantic or otherwise — which have the power to linger somewhere in the heart forever.

Vincent Tran is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].