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James Blake - Assume Form album review

On the title track of James Blake’s fourth album Assume Form, the British producer and auteur sings, “I can already see that this goes deeper.” Blake asks a series of questions on the opener that structure an album filled to the brim with interesting ideas, while exhibiting a degree of restraint that sets the project apart from his previous work. Blake’s heightened influence over hip-hop production has made its way back to his solo work, as contributions from Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, and the elusive André 3000 feel unique to both genres. If 2016’s The Colour in Anything was the last you heard from James Blake, Assume Form will come across as a substantial left turn. Even if you followed his misadventures in pop-rap projects since, there is no shortage of surprises here, in production and lyrics alike. For all that novelty, the listener is left wondering whether Blake understands exactly how deep his feelings go, or if his lack of understanding is the point.

Across numerous tracks, how Blake explores being in love seems to exist on a surface level. Assume Form, though, is selfish in the way a recluse can be in sharing so much of themselves in a relationship. Blake captures a self-indulgent, self-centered perspective of love that many will roll their eyes at. To debate the merits of that mindset deserves its own article, and numerous think-pieces have already tackled the matter. Even if Blake’s ego is unoriginal, his music maintains singularity.

The most notable disappointments on the record are the collaborations with Metro Boomin and Travis Scott. They are far from unlistenable, and certainly could crack the charts given the superstar appeal of Blake’s collaborators, but they feel especially stagnant on so varied a tracklist. Even Moses Sumney — whose voice and style match Blake’s perfectly on paper — can’t save this leg of the album. In the context of this album, they seem out of place. They bring an upbeat core to the first leg but have little impact on the entirety of the project.

Even if Assume Form is far from the intense darkness of Colour, Blake still crafts a cerebral atmosphere. At points, it feels almost sarcastic. On “Where’s the Catch,” Blake sings “everything’s roses” over a droning, march-like beat. Even so, the track is vibrant and punchy in a way similar to “Timeless” off Colour. André 3000’s appearance is brilliant, as usual. It feels like the perfect emcee feature for a James Blake record. Towards the end of the track, André and Blake’s voices mesh in a mesmerizing, glitchy maze. It is some of Blake’s best production.

Blake casts a wry image of self-doubt on “Where’s the Catch,” a feeling which surfaces a few times on the record, most notably on “Are You in Love.” That track captures a more typical James Blake sound. Part cascading electronica and part love-sick anthem, it is squarely in Blake’s wheelhouse while maintaining the thematic departure. He sings: “I promise you your place is safe. Now what about mine?” The listener — and Blake’s partner — could easily be frustrated by so demanding an ask. In the context of the album, though, the intentions of “Are You in Love” seem deliberate.

That frustration, though, is part of what makes Assume Form work. It would be jarring and disingenuous for Blake to portray his relationship as impervious, or to imply his struggles with mental health were washed away because of a profound connection. This album is Blake pushing himself to accept the truth of his present situation. The darkest corners of his mind were not erased overnight on some given day between 2016 and now. Blake — and, presumably, his partner — are casting light into those corners, together.

Most the project seems to be wrapped in self-critique. It is equal parts cynical and tongue-in-cheek. Blake’s self-loathing washes away on “I’ll Come Too” and “Power On,” with the former tinged in sarcasm and the latter blunt self-indictment. On “I’ll Come Too,” Blake inhabits the most possessive recesses of his mind. He follows his partner around the world, using his success to change plans on a whim. It comes across as creepy, but “Power On” serves to explicitly clarify his nature. Admittedly, the straightforward lyricism makes the listener long for a more mysterious Blake. “Don’t Miss It” is similarly transparent to a fault, but more successful in conveying Blake’s regrets for his behavior, and how he affected those around him. While imperfect, the track feels like a natural conclusion to the British crooner’s arc.

Album closer “Lullaby for My Insomniac” is an ethereal epilogue. Blake speaks directly to his sleepless partner and embodies whatever new version of himself he has wrestled with on the album. It is rather fitting that James Blake’s happy ending is impossibly melancholy, as his voice rings alone, and he drifts off, content.