A Review: Assume Form

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BY: AARON AVIDON

James Blake Litherland has had an interesting decade. Having started off as a buzzed-about producer out of the UK, he ignited his career in 2009 and 2010 with a series of EPs that showcased an appreciation for ambience, as well as danceable, post-dubstep grooves, in the same vein as fellow UK artists like Mount Kimbie or Burial.

It wasn't until the release of his eponymously titled debut LP in 2011 that the world really started to take notice, as he moved away from sample-heavy nocturnal bangers in favor of a more artful, even baroque direction. Blake's voice became the primary focus of the music, revealing an angelic, intimate cadence that revealed a desire for connection, while still maintaining a cold and calculated distance.

The hype running off the first studio album, as well as his second album, 2013's Overgrown, further showed off Blake's skills as a songwriter, as tracks like "Retrograde" drew attention from many voices in the mainstream. The year, 2016, brought us The Colour in Anything, Blake's third and longest album, and while it was incredibly ambitious and there were a handful of amazing songs, overall it was a rather inflated, unfocused batch of tracks. However, Blake didn’t stop there, as he’s gathered countless production credits from across the popular music landscape. Everyone from Travis Scott to Beyonce to Kendrick Lamar has had him in the studio, either mixing, composing, or even featuring--take the “Forward” interlude from Beyonce’s Lemonade, as a great example.

Images by © by Polydor Records

Images by © by Polydor Records

Not even 3 weeks into the new year, James Blake gives us his new album, ASSUME FORM, and there have been some noticeable changes. For one, the sonic palette across this LP is a lot brighter, way more thawed out, and warmer than on previous LP’s. The production is crisp, analogue at times, like on “Are You In Love?”, yet still spacey and even druggy on “Mile High”, featuring Travis Scott and Metro Boomin. Everything feels closer, within reach, and fully encompassing a wide range of emotions, from infatuation and bliss to disassociation and longing.

The other massive change on this LP is of Blake himself; James seems to finally be shedding the “sad boi behind a piano” aesthetic in favor of something a bit bolder-- a tangible swagger can be heard across the LP. The lyrics emphasize this sea change, as well, a great deal of the music on the album dedicating itself to love. While James used to be reeling and begging for romance and happiness, here he seems to have finally found it. He spends a lot of the album just expressing love for his girlfriend, Jameela Jalil. Notable examples include “Into the Red”, “I’ll Come Too”, and my personal favorite, “Power On”,  in which James says to his love interest, “Let’s go home and talk shit about everybody.” James is becoming self-aware, and it feels good to hear that tongue-in-cheek charisma on this album. It reminds me of Father John Misty’s album I LOVE YOU, HONEYBEAR from 2015, but frozen for 300 years and thawed out in the chrome covered future.

Images by © by Polydor Records

Images by © by Polydor Records

Aside from Travis Scott and Metro Boomin as I mentioned earlier, who work to add a truly hypnotic vibe, the album still has a solid group of featured vocalists who really add an extra dimension to a lot of the songs on the album. I think Rosalia and James Blake have stunning vocal chemistry on “Barefoot in the Park”, and I think Andre 3000 of Outkast kills it on “Where’s the Catch?”, a nocturnal, marching banger that feels straight out of Blade Runner.

I will admit, I think the opening and conclusion of the album are the weakest moments; “Assume Form” starting the album and “Lullaby For My Insomniac” don’t grip me the way some of the other songs here do. However, 2 weak songs out of a 12 song album still equate to a pretty amazing record. I think James Blake really outdid himself on this album, and it’s nice to see him grounding himself, becoming more human before our very eyes.

Overall Score: 9/10

Favorite Tracks: Mile High, Barefoot in the Park, I’ll Come Too, Power On, Don’t Miss It

Least Favorite Tracks: Assume Form, Lullaby For My Insomniac