When James Blake released his 2011 self-titled debut, he sounded like he was underwater. The album’s second single, “The Wilhelm Scream,” which followed a haunting cover of Feist’s “The Limit To Your Love.” found the the UK singer-producer singing, "I don't know about my dreamin' anymore / All that I know is I'm fallin', fallin', fallin', fallin'." Throughout, his piercing croon is enveloped with gauzy synths and understated beats.
At the song’s heart is a soulful despair that would go on to serve as the emotional foundation for most of his work. With the heavily textured R&B of 2013’s Mercury Prize-winning Overgrown, and the sprawling yet optimistic 2016 LP The Colour In Anything, Blake has solidified his place as one of pop music’s foremost melancholists. All the while, his post-dubstep arrangements have made him a go-to collaborator for marquee pop acts like Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Bon Iver.
The darkness in Blake’s songs was also reflected in his life amidst the demands of career that has only ascended since his early 20s. Now 30, he’s taking inventory, “I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed,” Blake said last year, speaking on the panel “Managing the Suicide Crisis in the Arts Population.” The touring lifestyle was especially unmooring: "Your connection to other people becomes surface level. So if you were only in town for one day and someone asked you how you are, you go into the good stuff…which generally doesn’t involve how anxious you feel [or] how depressed you feel.”
His comments came a couple of months after the release of “Don’t Miss It,” the first single on his tender fourth album Assume Form, out today . That lovely and yearning track boasted Blake’s dynamic voice singing, “When you get to hang out / With your favorite person everyday / When the dull pain goes away / Don't miss it.”
Blake later put out a statement about the online response to the song, pointing out a condescending headline “Yes, James Blake Is Still Sad,” and wrote, “I can't help but notice, as I do whenever I talk about my feelings in a song, that the words 'sad boy' are used to describe it. I've always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings.”
Hearing “Don’t Miss It” in the context of Assume Form, Blake’s most hopeful album yet, the “sad boy” cliches feel especially off-base. Blake has spent the last few years taking hard and necessary steps for his mental health, including therapy. He’s also been in a long-term relationship with former BBC1 personality and The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil, a romance he credited as a source of stability in his panel appearance. Tucked near the end of the album, “Don’t Miss It” isn’t even an unequivocal bummer. It’s a clear-eyed warning not to take things for granted. When Blake sings, “Don’t miss it / Like I did,” he laments not appreciating the moment while depressed. It’s an observation like that can only come from growth.
Assume Form asks what comes next after happiness. James Blake has always been at his best dissecting his insecurities, as on 2011’s “I Never Learnt To Share” and 2016’s “I Hope My Life (1-800 Mix),” songs that respectively dealt with self-loathing and self-doubt. It’s no different here, even though the emotional stakes are now tethered to maintaining stability and a healthy, fulfilling relationship. On the glistening title track opener he affirms over spliced piano loops, “I’ll be out of my head this time / I will be touchable by her / I will be reachable.” It’s a palpable mantra to presence and letting go of the past.
Where Blake’s earliest records were a stark window into his solitary writing and recording sessions, Assume Form is inviting and intimate. He’s said in a 2016 interview that, “Music is more fun when you play with other people.” That shows on the album, which was co-produced by Mount Kimbie’s Maker and executive produced by Blake’s manager Dan Foat, and boasts of multitude of guests like Travis Scott, Moses Sumney, Metro Boomin, and more gracing the tracklist.
The result has Blake at his most relaxed in sound and spirit. Spain’s 2018 breakout artist Rosalía guests on the carefree “Barefoot In The Park,” a woozy, sexy number about enjoying time spent with your significant other. Though there’s still some menace underneath—“Who needs balance? / I’ll see you every day”—its inherent sweetness is undeniable. But it’s not constant lovelorn bliss. On the brooding “Where’s The Catch?,” ‘can’t-believe-my-luck’ anxieties take hold as he wonders, “Can I trust this now?” The track’s marquee guest André 3000 is a Greek chorus to Blake’s insecurity in a dexterous verse: “How many days of amazin’ will it be before it phases and say, ‘I told you so.’”
But the album’s most resonant moments come in Blake’s unguarded devotion to being in a committed relationship. “Into the Red” kicks off with him crooning over a plucked beat and cascading strings, “to keep her in my sights, to keep her in my life.” Elsewhere, Blake is practically swooning, as on “I’ll Come Too,” a lovely ode to letting go of oneself and wanting to go everywhere with your partner: “I’m gonna say what I need / If it’s the last thing / I do I do, I do, I do / I’m in that kind of mood.” “I Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is perhaps the LP’s most beautiful track, playing like a 2019 update of the chords on The Commodores’ “Easy” over layered vocals and the especially hear-tugging line: “You waive my fear of self.”
Coming to terms with, and ultimately accepting, happiness is surprisingly hard. This is especially true if its absence has been your norm. That’s the tension at the core of Assume Form. It’s an album that finds its strength in humility: Letting go of personal bullshit in service of someone else. “I thought everything could fade but I was wrong,” Blake admits between the bassy synth swells of “Power On,” the album’s emotional centerpiece. “Have you ever coexisted so easily? / Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone / Let’s go home finally.”
Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.