The Lowdown: James Blake’s career is the story of percussion giving way to melody. The onetime dubstep DJ first gained notice for his kinetic drums and wildly fractured rhythms. But even as dubstep was peaking, Blake was moving on. His debut album, 2011’s James Blake, showcased a new attention to hookmaking. Songs like “The Wilhelm Scream” placed him at the forefront of pop’s avant-garde, and his next two albums only added to this reputation. Blake favors disquieting instrumentals and gobsmackingly gorgeous melodies. Artists from Frank Ocean to Post Malone owe a debt to his wobbling chords and lonely, introspective lyrics. In this sense, his new album is a departure. It seems he’s no longer lonely. As it happens, Blake is dating Jameela Jamil of The Good Place, and on Assume Form, he expresses a kind of cautious happiness for the first time.
The Good: Songs that are written with a specific person in mind can range from great to terrible, insightful to pandering, “Layla” to “Pete Davidson”. Assume Form is, happily, full of insight. Blake dwells on the anxieties of new relationships. “Are You in Love” does ask that question, but it doesn’t give you time to respond before begging you to “Do your best impression for me.” “Where’s the Catch” captures the jittery feeling of waiting for a good thing to go bad and features a galaxy-brained guest verse from Andre 3000. The album works because Blake is sparing with sweetness, always ready to balance it out with a dash of acid or bitterness. This restraint pays off on the big, romantic numbers, especially “Barefoot in the Park” featuring Rosalia. She sings in Spanish with a voice like sunlight on cobwebs, and Blake abandons all melodic restraint. Never mind the minor key: “Barefoot in the Park” gushes with loveliness.
The Bad: I see you, message board warrior, ready to come roaring in with “But none of the songs are as good as, ‘Retrograde’!” And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps James Blake wrote a perfect song several years ago, and now every new effort must be held ransom to our memories of that perfection. But this record is remarkable in its own right. If I have one complaint, it’s only that Assume Form, like previous James Blake albums, saves its most ethereal and spaced-out songs for the end. Artists do this kind of thing because they tend to jam to their own stuff in dark studios with excellent speakers. Under those circumstances, you can achieve remarkable emotional effects. And it’s true, when I listened to the album at home on my best speakers, I appreciated the subtle artistry of the last two tracks, “Don’t Miss It” and “Lullaby for My Insomniac”. But in a train, in a car, at work, or while walking down a street — the times when most people listen to music — the album runs out of energy. It fizzles to its end. Again, these tracks worked for me in a distraction-free environment, but your mileage may vary.
The Verdict: Even with a finale that slightly underwhelms, Assume Form is a remarkable achievement by one of the most original songwriters of his generation. Blake hasn’t lost his love of percussion, and his gift for melody seems without limit. This is Blake at his most focused, stripped of electronic frills, and down to his emotional underwear. Considering the subject, you might have thought things would get a bit dull. Luckily, James Blake is one of those uncommon artists who can be both happy and interesting.
Essential Tracks: “Barefoot in the Park”, “Are You in Love”, and “Where’s the Catch”