James Blake: Assume Form

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review by evan balikos

Assume Form is an unfurling, majestic art-piece centered around love and how it heals us; it is James Blake’s most cohesive and strongest album to date

Good artists know that there is value in abstraction. What is most impactful is usually what is universally known. James Blake is a master at turning simple into complex, and the core message of Assume Form—that true love helps us survive—might be his most resounding statement yet, precisely because it is so humble. Love, a huge abstract, is the ultimate nexus; it is connected to every aspect of our life, and with that gone, we would lose an irreplaceable source of happiness. For Blake, that happiness is found in his girlfriend, actor Jameela Jamil. It is her understanding of him, his feelings, and his art that drives him to move past darker days, such as those explored on his last album, The Colour In Anything: a project that hosted some fantastic melodies but was held down by its inherent gloom. Here, he melds his morose statements with uplifting ones. Fans will find that his dynamic vocals are still on full display and that his glitchy and glorious instrumentation is circulating strongly throughout the album. With its condensed, varied production, poetic lyrics on emotion and impulse, and a host of great guest spots, it’s an album that not only humanizes a performer but delights the ears and rewards multiple listens. 

In the opener and title track “Assume Form”, he illustrates how great his love for his partner is. A twirling grand piano and steady percussion buzz around Blake’s vocals as he dispels his negative thoughts and allows himself to let love in. “I will be touchable, I will be reachable/ ‘Cause I can already see that this goes deeper” he sings in full awareness of his transformation. Blake describes how depression makes you lose your sense of self. When he says that he will assume form, he is referring to an escape from negative space. On his own, that escape may seem futile, but for his lover, he is willing to try. In “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow”, he is happily glued to her. “I could’ve used you in the early days/  Well, it’s been such a long, long, long time/ With the music of my mind/ Most of it seems unfinished now”, he sings in arresting falsetto tones over hypnotic vocal samples. The song samples “It Feels so Good to Be Loved so Bad” by The Manhattans: a classic loved-up R&B song. One can imagine Blake hearing it and thinking “Yeah, that’s how I feel about her.” 

Throughout the album, Blake uses familiar ideas to deconstruct and promote his personal feelings of love. “Power On” is a bit of a lyrical jungle, but it is a stunning track that is layered top-to-bottom with varied synth notes, clacking 808 drums, and bubbling woodwind instruments; it is entirely possible to discover something new lurking inside it with various repeats. Blake is “powered on” by his love for Jameela, meaning he is seemingly reborn or reset when he swallows his pride and learns to confide in her. “I thought I might be better dead, but I was wrong/ I thought everything could fade, but I was wrong” he sings softly over deep bass tones. To Blake, his lover makes everything idealistic. He can think clearer, he becomes more open-minded, more sexual, and more openly emotional. With her, everything seems perfect. 

But Blake is only human, and that natural flight reflex imbued in every man who finally gets a taste of something good appears in “Where’s the Catch?”: a pulsating track that has spritzes of everything from shadowy piano to house basslines to auto-tune to razor-sharp guitar; it is an album highlight because of André 3000’s verse alone. “All my pets are mystic, keeps me in a cage (cage)/ Aww, my head is twisted, keeps me spinnin’ round for days (days)/ Exorcism, pessimism has arisen/ There’s no reason really, treason to myself so silly”, he raps, matching Blake’s paranoid feelings about a relationship that feels too perfect to be true. Nevertheless, Blake stays strong and throws caution to the wind in “I’ll Come Too”: an unmistakably romantic number that sees Blake weightless, heart-eyed, and inseparable from his lover. This track feasts on nostalgia. The backing vocals, stirring percussion, and Blake’s crooning create airy levels of dreamy, romantic vibes and reminds listeners of pure infatuation with a lover.  

However, beside the romantic ballads and passionately delivered lines of piano, there’s still room for unrestrained fun to be had on Assume Form. This comes thanks to Metro Boomin, who co- produces two great tracks for the album: “Mile High” and “Tell Them”. “Mile High” is a delightfully vibrant addition that includes Travis Scott’s pinpoint rhyming, skittering hi-hats, and a dizzying bassline with specks of distortion. With both of them doing their share of harmonizing, and even a bit of rapping from Blake, it is clear that they are an exceptional duo. “Tell Them”, with Moses Sumney, is the anxious opposite to this cloudy jam: a dark trap tango that features club-ready percussion, subtle claps, and a shattering bassline. “Can't return the sacred time you steal/ A fact betrays the way you feel/ And the sight delays the right to heal/ You decide to stay long”, Sumney sings in a husky falsetto before Blake contests his sentiments  

Assume Form’s final third is its strongest row of songs. The show-stopping “Don’t Miss It”, features a dominant vocal riff from Blake so striking that it stays dormant in the mind long after the chords have faded, and “Lullaby for My Insomniac” reinforces Blake’s control over minimalism, as he utilizes only his voice and velvety synthesizer chords to create a calming soundscape that would fit perfectly on anyone’s “Sleep” playlist. By the end of the album, Blake has displayed stunning virtuosity, unrepressed emotion, and a determination to fill the canvas of his music as much as possible. These twelve tracks are each microcosms of passion, soul, and experience that are unlike anything else listeners have heard from him. With his heart on his sleeve and an array of emotive music at the forefront, Assume Form signals an artist becoming a paragon. And all he needed was a little love in his life. 

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