James Blake proves that he is a trailblazer in the art of off-kilter pop music with the excellent “Assume Form,” an album that fuses ambition with Blake's most upbeat material ever.
Released in January, “Assume Form” is Blake’s first album since 2016’s “The Colour In Everything,” one full of a gloomy sadness that, until this point, seemed to be a trademark staple of his singing. Since that album, Blake has dropped more of the same somber material, with a few singles and a prominent feature on Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Panther” soundtrack.
And then he fell in love. In 2015 Blake began dating actress Jameela Jamil, notably of “The Good Place.” I’m not saying the relationship is the direct cause of the change, but “Assume Form” is Blake’s most surprisingly happy content he’s ever released, a beautiful foray into the wonders of romance and falling in love.
The album, spanning 12 tracks and clocking in at under an hour, is a seminar in the ability to create vulnerable and emotional pop songs that differ from the norm in every way possible. In addition to tapping into his usual piano-driven style that was prominent on his previous albums, Blake goes for a more modern approach here, with many touches of electronic music prominent.
Blake also gets with the times and develops a hip-hop sound on “Assume Form”. After the titular track, the singer enlists rap superstar Travis Scott for single “Mile High,” which is held together by Scott’s vocals and trap production. Having previously collaborated on Scott’s “Astroworld,” this song sounds like a hidden gem left on that album’s cutting room floor.
Following the Scott feature is “Tell Them,” another trap-influenced track anchored down by Metro Boomin’s production and featuring an astonishing vocal performance from avant-garde soul musician Moses Sumney. The song aligns with the beat-ridden material that occupies today’s top charts.
The album’s highlight is “Barefoot in the Park,” a touching reflection on romance backed up by Spanish singer Rosalía. Featuring dense portions of electro-pop laced into the track, Blake and Rosalía deliver what “Assume Form" gets right the most out of any other album released this year thus far— pitch-perfect and emotionally stirring vocals.
“Who needs balance?” the two sing as an observance on the strength of love. “I’ll see you every day.”
Blake’s other guest star is none other than André 3000, one half of one of the greatest music acts of all time in Outkast. On the song “Where’s the Catch?” André tears through a fast-paced verse while Blake surrounds him in his trademark falsetto and a shroud of digital noises.
The extensive guest list does nothing to detract from Blake as a solo musician, with songs like “Into the Red” and single “Don’t Miss It” acting as a pedestal to display his singing ability and songcraft potential. In addition to flowing consistently throughout the album, each of these tracks pulsate with an optimism and an affectionate sense of magnetism that Blake orchestrates.
“Assume Form" is Blake’s brightest album, and advantageous in the fact that his music has never sounded as positive as it does here. And that makes it a journey unlike anything in his catalogue.