James Blake’s album covers say a lot about his progression as an artist. On his 2011 debut, his face was shrouded and blurred. Follow-up ‘Overgrown’ was clearer, but saw him standing in the distance in a sparse, snowy landscape. Third effort, 2016’s ‘The Colour In Anything’, meanwhile, featured a signature illustration from his namesake, illustrator Quentin. All relied on mystery and the unknown. On the sleeve for ‘Assume Form’, though, the singer is front and centre, no longer hiding, and this vulnerability and straightforwardness seeps into every facet of his staggering fourth effort.
“I will assume form,” he wails, as a chorus bursts out of the album’s opening (and title) track. “I’ll leave the ether,” he continues. “I will be reachable.” The song - a piano-led cut that unfolds slowly - serves as a door opening to an album that blows James Blake’s musical and personal horizons wide open. “Doesn’t it seem much warmer, just knowing that the sun will be out,” he offers as the song heads off into the sunset.
After an intimate, minimal pair of albums brought him the adoration of critics and a Mercury Prize win, ‘The Colour In Anything’ was James Blake’s huge, messy dive into something more all-encompassing, and it came with mixed results. Dropped without warning, and running to 75 minutes, it remains praiseworthy in its ambition, if not totally in its execution. ‘Assume Form’ keeps that same desire to break new ground, while taking it to the red line and managing to not outstay its welcome.
James has used high profile features to varying levels of success on his three studio albums, and the trend continues on ‘Assume Form’. ‘Mile High’, featuring Travis Scott, is pleasant but largely anonymous, while ‘Tell Them’ is smoothed over by the ever-intriguing tones of Moses Sumney. Rosalía then shines on the serene ‘Barefoot In The Park’, but it’s the Andre 3000-featuring ‘Where’s The Catch’ that really sticks. Foreboding stabs of dulled piano create a base upon which the Outkast rapper smashes through the clouds to deliver a sharp hammer-blow of a verse.
Though the features add texture and variation to a record that’s constantly shapeshifting, it’s James’ solo songs that define the album. ‘Where’s The Catch’ is followed by the gorgeous ‘I’ll Come Too’. A lovestruck ballad, the song glides upon an instantly memorable vocal line via which he reaches more personal epiphanies. “I’m gonna say what I need, if it’s the last thing I do,” he begins emphatically. “I’ll throw my hat in the ring / I’ve got nothing to lose.”
‘Power On’, which follows the track, is an even more forceful exorcism of past demons and the album’s stunning centrepiece. “I thought I might be better dead but I was wrong,” he begins, reflecting on former mistakes from a new vantage point. As the song draws to a triumphant close, he turns these personal revelations outwards, miles away from the shrouded, shy figure we met nearly a decade ago. “If it feels like a home, power on,” he repeats, encouraging others to grasp any opportunity to move forwards and onwards, completely changing his placing as an artist in the process. Where James Blake can go now is limitless.
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