James Blake’s Assume Form is undeniably a glittering success. Alongside almost universal critical acclaim, collaborations with the likes of Travis Scott and André 3000 shuffles Blake ever so slightly further into hip-hop’s all-embracing sphere, garnering him a new demographic of transatlantic fans. The theme of the project is clear enough, as Blake glides from track to track, joyously extolling the virtues of unbridled love. This marks a seismic shift in tone for the musician, who rose to fame through his frank but dark depictions of sombre loneliness. His third album, The Colour in Anything, seemed to be the manifestation of a creative rut, provoked by overwhelming emotional bleakness. No longer is this the case: Blake has since moved to California with girlfriend Jameela Jamil, and in the sun and splendour he has relinquished his former self in favour of one brimming with energy. It is not the case that Blake has turned to the decadence of Hollywood, sacrificing introspection in the meantime. Conversely, he has candidly burst from the shell of self-doubt, willing to share his emotions with us, the fans, and his love with his significant other.
Blake’s magic lies in his ability to load complex emotion into simple lyrics. Like a stanza of a hermetic poet, or the brushstroke of an esteemed painter, each of Blake’s lines offer an inroad into the artist’s psychology and state of being. What has become apparent is that the boundaries of self, that Blake delineated with such sombre precision in his earlier albums, have melted away. With guarded gates released, Blake’s psyche has been unreservedly opened, keen to partake in the union of pure love.
Take one of Blake’s earlier works: The Wilhelm Scream. In this track Blake repeats the refrain ‘I’m falling’ numerously, indicating a reticent yet unstable sense of self. Indeed, Blake’s voice soon becomes drowned under a sea of bubbling synths, a voice crying out for an understanding of itself and the life that surrounds it. Such confusion of self is symbolised too by the very title, a reference to the inhuman, canned wail that features widely across the history of television.
Jump forward eight years and to the sixth track of this latest album, Can’t Believe The Way We Flow. Immediately, the title suggests a radical change in spirit. Rigid disorientation has been eschewed in favour of fluid, vivid passion, as Blake bellows out ‘I’m finding I’m a smaller piece than I once thought.’ As he puts it himself, “the more time I was spending thinking about myself, the worst I felt. And actually taking care of someone else, or taking care of something else can take you out of your head, and take you much further than you ever thought you could go, I think.” A similar theme can be found in the second track, Mile High, in which Blake sings, ‘don’t know where you stop, and where I begin.’ The bewilderment of The Wilhelm Scream is still there, but the confusion is positive, it is embraced. Almost paradoxically, by unshackling a heart contained in insecurity for almost a decade and allowing it to roam freely in the company of another, Blake has found that it now beats faster and harder than ever before.
The music has significantly altered too. Muddy synths, as on Klavierwerke or Postpone, have been all but lost, replaced by twinkling keys and angelic vocal samples. The earthy 808s, most pronounced in Limit To Your Love, are still there, but are tailored and restrained as to not submerge Blake’s triumphant voice. His choice of production further reflect this new found broad-mindedness. Consistency, of course, is vital to an artist’s success, but without proper guidance it can tend towards tedium and stagnation. Just think about Eminem’s joyless inability to shed his pop-rock skin on recent albums. So how refreshing it is to see Blake explore diverse contemporary sounds, from the sparking Spanish of Rosalia to the king of the zeitgeist, Metro Boomin. Not that such artists deprive Blake of centre stage; instead, they add sparkle and crispness to this already thematically coherent project.
The live shows supporting Assume Form are particularly telling too. Blake is still modestly shy – he blames his Englishness for such a fault – but the performance speaks for itself, as he effortlessly bounds from one track to another, faultless in both voice and instrumentation. He becomes overwhelmed by the adoration shown to him by the audience, seemingly shocked by their own happiness in seeing him happy. This is a common problem facing artists who have experienced a psychological revolution, and fear that their listenership will reject their new work, despite it being authentic and honest. For Blake, he has little to worry about. There is no nobility in sadness, and very little to gain in insecurity. His audience aren’t just happy for him, they are proud of him, of him having escaped the darkness that seemed so inescapable just a couple years ago.