MusicWeekend

James Blake Grows Up

Assume Form is Blake’s first album to acknowledge his status as a pop presence, but it also feels like an attempt to broaden his range, to correct the way he became associated with generic melancholy.

Put on the new James Blake album and behold a finely processed musical mist. Assume Form, out since January, is supposedly the English avant-electronic producer-singer’s maturity move, an elated, confessional embrace of romantic bliss, where his previous albums have bogged down pursuing an ideal of misery.

It’s also a pop move, featuring brighter beats, prettier textures, and cameos from Travis Scott, Metro Boomin, Andre 3000, Rosalia. It’s also exactly as amorphous as his previous albums, a painstaking electrotapestry whose thin electronic loops and skeletal song structures coalesce into a blurry wetness. If this be love, it is as attenuated as Blake’s keyboard presets.

Blake has been blurry and attenuated since his first full-length album, James Blake (2011), when the playful collage games of his earlier EPs gave way to a slower electropop style that wasn’t minimalist so much as minimal: clickity metronomic percussion, piano doodles, Blake singing through vocoders in patterns that stop short of melody, touches of mild distortion, all draped in muted gloom.

What’s changed since then is Blake’s embrace by the mainstream, not in hits or sales, but in guest features; as Blake himself told Associated Press, he’s become a “musician’s musician”, especially among rappers, second only to Justin Vernon himself. When megastars want a white male singer to mumble on one of their songs, they call James Blake, as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Travis Scott have.

Assume Form is Blake’s first album to acknowledge his status as a pop presence, but it also feels like an attempt to broaden his range, to correct the way his name has, in part thanks to those guest features, become associated with generic melancholy. Soft strings have replaced menacing keyboard trickle; lyrics that describe first-person intimacy have replaced lyrics that ponder alienation as a social tendency. Blake’s electronically altered white-soul voice has shifted from a sniffle to a swoon. Instead of faint minor-key atmosphere, behold faint major-key atmosphere. This is an artist who specializes in slight gestures, so to him, negligible changes feel huge. He’s trying to open his heart.

As a pop move, Assume Form proves mainly that old habits die hard; it’s oblique, fussy, reticent, mannered. While the arrangements are warmer and more ornate, they float through space as idly as his previous work, and exude the same hushed delicacy. Blake’s mood has changed, but his formal strategy hasn’t; in both cases he presents the mood as an abstraction, a meditative emotional state whose particulars — lyrical details, linear melodies, even electronic textures that are concrete rather than whooshy — are gooped over by a soft salve intended to represent the primal, preverbal totality of romantic emotion, whether the emotion is love or melancholy.

Shoegaze bands and ambient electronic producers have achieved a similar feel through immersive, monolithic sound. Since Blake still bothers with discrete song structures no matter how perfunctory, his music often feels aimless, caught between two modes — as songcraft, this music meanders; as soundscape it’s thin and diluted.

True love is a strange feeling to water down, though. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” glides over a looped, high-pitched vocal sample and countless runny keyboard layers, as Blake’s falsetto projects a sense of surprised elation, but he can’t stop fussing: halfway through, the beat drops out, the sample changes tempo, and this break lasts until the very end of the song, when the original beat reappears. That is, he deliberately disrupts the song’s flow, but since the original beat was already inertly midtempo, there isn’t much of a contrast.

“I’ll Come Too” is typical: clicky drums, a chorus of angelic sighs, and damp strings flutter by, as Blake coos a pledge of eternal devotion and vows to follow his lover to the ends of the earth; it’s strange to hear this sentiment delivered over such mild music. “Barefoot in the Park” is tenser, thanks to Rosalia’s fraught, fragile singing, but while the electrobeat complements her, it sounds stiff, too contrived in its just-right blend of keyboard gloss and sampled, inarticulate, breathy human-adjacent moan.

Although critics have praised Blake for his use of blank space as a compositional device, a way to let songs breathe, quietude and space are not the same thing. Throughout the album, various instruments provide florid ostinato shades, with increasing subtlety, filling in the background’s every corner; the echo effects pile up endlessly. Too many light touches and soft hues crammed into the same space produce an unlikely claustrophobia — a distancing effect that is striking, but antithetical to intimacy.

If Assume Form hasn’t reached the acclaim that its predecessors have, maybe it’s because that was then and this is now. Electronic music has changed a lot over the course of Blake’s career, and so has his relationship to the genre. When he first started fashioning his quiet, garbled, electrominimalist ballads, the pop transmutation of dance music — what was only just beginning to be called EDM — was in a loud phase, as harsh textures, comically aggressive hooks, and kinetic fireworks were commonplace. Blake’s sparse palette and moody introspection seemed a plausible alternative to dubstep’s masculine triumphalism, as if electronic music’s artificial qualities were somehow compatible with depicting interior spaces.

EDM is a different beast in 2019, though; nebulous, lightly processed, R&B-inflected heartsongs are everywhere. Blake’s embrace of pop songcraft on Assume Form and pop radio’s turn toward the ambient have effectively met each other in the middle. His moodiness, in which strained soul singing and watery accompaniment signify a sensitive, overflowing heart, has become a pop staple, which may be why so many artists have wanted to collaborate with him lately.

There are identifiable differences between the songs on Assume Form and a radio hit like, say, Marshmello & Bastille’s “Happier” — Blake’s music lacks the inspirational, fist-pumping drop, the predictable tension-and-release dynamics, the basic pop competence. But the underlying sentimentality is the same. When Marshmello and countless other EDM producers capture such sentimentality in crystalline songform, it’s impossible to mistake it for anything else. By obscuring the details in a cloudy, rose-tinted haze, Blake’s approach is supposed to strip away the corny elements, leaving something purer and more genuinely emotional. The actual result is kitsch.

I’m curious to see where Blake goes from here. Despite the pull of a simplistic, linear maturity narrative — alienated artist grows up, finds love, that sort of thing — I suspect he has weirder destinations ahead of him. Assume Form strains to construct such a narrative and fails, because he’s just too recalcitrant to be parsed that easily. Perhaps the mist will carry him away, and he’ll alight on another mood.

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