James Blake’s music cannot be categorized into a specific genre. Many artists have been labeled as musical chameleons, adapting their sound from album to album based off of the current trends in music. But it would be a mistake to add that descriptor to Blake as well. Although his music has changed significantly through his career, it has not adapted to the current trends of the moment, but subverted them.
His most recent album, “Assume Form,” marks another radical shift in sound for Blake. It is his most vibrant and warm album yet—a full departure from both his droning and sample-based early work, and provides a far more streamlined product than his prior albums. In an era where the most popular songs of the year have generally depressing lyrics (see: “Push me to the edge / all my friends are dead”), his passionate and heartfelt declarations felt throughout “Assume Form” are undeniably powerful. It is arguably his best work yet.
The album starts with a relatively typical James Blake motif: arpeggiated piano melodies and Blake’s croon. It’s pretty, but the next two songs show off Blake’s ability to incorporate diverse music styles into his own album, featuring co-production by Metro Boomin. “Mile High,” featuring a verse from arguably the most popular artist of 2018, Travis Scott, is very good and will undoubtedly be overplayed on campus by the end of the month. Blake’s signature moody synths and Metro Boomin’s signature hi-hat rhythms blend perfectly.
The highlights keep coming throughout the record. “Barefoot in the Park” is a beautiful collaboration between Blake and neo-flamenco singer Rosalia, providing some of the prettiest harmonies recorded in recent memory. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” and “I’ll Come Too” are two incredibly sweet love songs, coming off as genuine and spirited rather than tacky. Blake has never strayed away from getting emotional in his albums, and “Assume Form” is no different.
The difference between this album and his previous works is that the primary subject of his lyrics is love. A valid critique of prior James Blake albums is that they sound like they could be recorded under a thick blanket, slightly hermetic and overly downtrodden. Personally, I loved those albums, but they definitely aren’t wildly upbeat. “Assume Form” sounds like Blake emerging from the bedroom, declaring his love and passion out to the world with every track. I was shocked on first listen by how happy Blake sounds on this album, but I’m definitely here for it.
“Assume Form” focuses intently on little details, adding many layers of production and vocal harmonies to craft lush rhythms and melodies. You can hear a multitude of synthesizers, piano and sparse percussion on each song, meticulously crafted so no two songs sound even remotely similar to each other, while still maintaining a perfect flow from track to track. Andre 3000 verses, high pitched and distorted vocal harmonies and heartfelt piano ballads all work together beautifully. “Assume Form” is an album to play again and again, with new sounds revealing themselves upon each listen.