There have been few musical talents in recent years to subscribe to and spearhead the desire to not conform to conventions of set rules of sound and style, the anti-genre wave, than singer/songerwriter, producer, DJ and pianist James Blake. His eclectic inclinations towards his creative process have earned him the status of leading the post-dubstep electronic sound, collaborations with other modern minimalists such as Bon Iver and Brian Eno, and placements with an impressive line-up of hip-hop acts such as Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West, with the latter naming him as one of his favorite artists. Now, with his aptly named fourth studio album, Blake is prepared to add the latest body of work into his diverse, chronologically sensitive progression of his discography, the next piece of his personal puzzle, as he himself aims to Assume Form.
The album kicks off with an introspective preamble for the rest of the project, as James Blake outlines his struggles with staying grounded in everyday life. The track’s somber subject matter is backed by swelling piano rolls and chattering percussion that communicate a stuttering, bare musical palette to match the lyrics. Blake sings in the chorus, “I will assume form, I’ll be out of my head this time
I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable” and thus establishes to the listeners his desire to achieve the state of feeling whole and experiencing peace. In an interview with Apple Music he said, in regards to these lyrics, “These slight feelings of repression lead to this feeling of ‘I’m not in my body, I’m not really experiencing life through first-person.’ Which is a phenomenon a lot of people describe when they talk about depression.” Even the structure of the song continues to set the tone of the project by creating the outro, the conclusion, as the most fleshed out and layered sound within the song.
One of the most exciting things about listening to this album for the first time, and one of the most exciting things for any James Blake album, is seeing how and when Blake draws from the many varying facets of his musical talent arsenal. The three-track-stretch of “Tell Them” with Moses Sumney and producer Metro Boomin’ to “Into The Red,” to “Barefoot In The Park,” with ROSALIA, highlights this particular appeal of his sound with each one feeling so potent in their contrast from the others. “Tell Them,” featuring two hip hop acts, is heavily influenced by the genre, from punchy sine wave mallets accentuated by clicky hi-hats and staccato string samples to a standout vocal performance by L.A. singer-songwriter Moses Sumney. Blake’s own vocals are swathed in a generous amount of reverb as his voice floats over the mesmerizing ambiance. The song is a success in its stickiness and palpable chemistry. “Into the Red,” however, trades the hard-hitting 808s of the previous track in favor of a slower, acoustic cut showcasing Blake’s songwriting abilities. Love, and its fleeting intensity, is appreciated here and he tells a story of dedication and sacrifice through, at times, distorted vocal effects over a guitar melody that remains poignant in its constancy. Blake continues his transitional revolution with the track “Barefoot in the Dark.” It samples an old Irish folk song called “Fíl a Run Ó,” (translated to “Return, My Love”), while featuring Spanish R&B singer ROSALIA. In what is already an ambitious crossover, Blake excels by creating what is a standout on the album and a must-listen cut for anyone who values a truly epic refrain.
These stylistic themes of hip-hop-inspired drum and bass, soulful ballads, and sample-heavy experimental cuts repeat themselves throughout the project in what is a beautiful landscape of sound to behold. Andre 3000 of Outkast and Travis Scott both provide killer verses in their respective cadences, leaving Blake to continue his magic by utilizing their contributions akin to how a movie producer would arrange his cast. Where the experience comes up short, however, resides in the occasionally questionable hook motifs that frequent in songs like “Where’s the Catch” and “Power On,” which both feature annoying, repetitive vocal accents of the respective titles. Feeling outdated and tacky, they ruin the immersion of otherwise fascinating canvases of art.
Incorporating influences and collaborations of different and even contradictory disciplines run the risk of the new art sounding disjointed or incohesive, and Blake has been no stranger to this criticism in the past. Perhaps on Assume Form it is this relative lack of sonic consistency that represents a form that supersedes any assumption necessary, and instead, leaves nothing for the focus to shift to but for the progression from one past version of Blake’s psyche to one current version. This collection of songs revel in their beauty and celebrate in their features as the mind of the true James Blake joins the world.