Winter does not exist without James Blake. Known best for his chilling music and collaborations with hip-hop’s upper echelon (Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Chance The Rapper), Blake’s solo material weaves icy production with fables of lost love. His sound mimics creeping ivy, and the blanketing quality of his work—from 2011’s self-titled record to 2016’s The Colour in Anything—has made him a staple name in the urban and electronic music spheres. With that, Blake has tapped some of rap’s brightest and releases Assume Form, his best work since 2013’s opus, Overgrown.
We are treated to a silvery opening, like constantly rippling river splitting against well-placed snaps and claps. Unlike The Colour In Anything, Assume Form allows the music to do the work, keeping it from becoming a needlessly self-involved affair. This album has purpose and an understated grandiosity. A spiraling descent into a lovesick madness, we move from obliterating whites (“Assume Form”) to demented grays (“Where’s the Catch”) ever so subtly. Eventually, we simply sway and sink to the bottom of a pit (“Power On”) of Blake’s making.
The guests grace Assume Form. Travis Scott and James Blake belong together on “Mile High,” and Moses Sumney’s haunting vocal comes alive on “Tell Them,” with Blake’s modulated vocals acting as the perfect, raspy choir backing. We even get a spirited string riff to bridge their parts. The strength of the features damns Blake, however, with “Barefoot in the Park” struggling to work as one cohesive idea. Spanish neoflamenco star ROSALÍA simply steals the show. Meanwhile, teetering piano and spotty vocal samples make “Where’s the Catch” classically haunting, and André 3000 delivers a Cheshire smile of a verse. Heavy; dastardly; tortured.
The album feels like a new-age noir soundtrack, something to loop as you pace to and fro in your apartment and wonder when the searching feeling of being alive will subside. Blake turns feelings of desperation and desolation into cascading synths (“Are You in Love?”) and a sauntering piano line. He tells a compelling tale of loneliness and isolation, giving memories a life and more importantly, an abstract death. In that death, we find our place.
Like all James Blake records, the great issue with Assume Form is pacing. “Into The Red,” per its name, has a much richer timbre and the depth of the string chords strikes a stark contrast to the skeletal keys and wisps of the violin. Yet, there is so much turbulence packed into this elegant and eloquent tune; Blake captures the beauty of brokenheartedness. “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is more alkaline than the preceding five tracks, and also chips at the pacing of the album. We simply cannot go from geometric textures to silk in one bat, no matter how precious Blake’s vocal.
We arrive at the cardinal ache of the album on “Power On,” where Blake confesses to all of his mistakes. His priorities painfully out of order, he’s suffering through what we could consider an avoidable loss. He even mocks himself on “Don’t Miss It.” Blake’s self-effacing tone is admirable and he skirts around being bitter, which is a common trap of the heartbroken album. The lesson of Assume Form is atonement. We realize Blake is urging us to see and cherish what we keep underfoot. He hurts so we do not have to. Let’s call this his most affecting record to date.
Standout track: “Where’s the Catch?”
Best Bar: “But the memories survive, survive, with me / It’s all on thin ice, thin ice, thin ice / Your answer will die, will die, with me / Are you in love?”
Favorite Moment: Skittering voice modulation on “Don’t Miss It.”