Album of the Week: On Assume Form (2019 LP), James Blake employs a grander palette

James Blake has long stood as a unique and talented artist within his own niche of alternative electronic music, with a formidable knack for contemporary hip hop inspired soundscapes as well as the ability to craft twinkling ballads of melancholy. The two sides to his talent occasionally have crossed paths previously (his remix of ‘Timeless’ featuring Vince Staples, is a standout example), but with this new album, Blake blends a myriad of different sounds to create what may be his most textured and diverse project yet.

Assume Form’s titular opening song employs his trademark wispy vocals over undulating piano keys and high pitched synths that dance on and off beat, creating an oddly staggered melody, that allows for James’ vocals to flow across the song beautifully. ‘Assume Form’ would fit the stylings of many of his previous works, yet it beautifully blends into back to back Metro Boomin collaborations despite the leagues of stylistic differences. The Travis Scott assisted ‘Mile High’ features James and Travis exchange autotuned and filtered lyrics, feeling like a trap breakup song, with the token 808’s and arpeggiated hi-hats beautifully meshed with exceptional synth work. The song feels roomy and atmospheric; more instrumentally intense than many of James’ other work, yet still flowing beautifully from the opening track.

The blending of numerous sounds becomes very evident across the first songs of the album, as so many features of different genres are distilled to create a unique sound. James incorporates a variety of instrumental and vocal styles that make Assume Form feel very dynamic, as if the album is in a constant state of flux, with twinkling instrumentals and scattered drums ebbing and flowing throughout the album. This greater variety instils the album with an expansive feeling, which is a testament to Blake’s ability in bending the boundaries of genre.

The collaborations are more extensive than his previous works, working with a slew of varied artists – Moses Sumney, Andre 3000 and ROSALIA all seem like extremely different talents, yet they are all incorporated incredibly well into Assume Form, with no feature feeling out of place or hurriedly added onto the back end of a song. By bringing in artists who attempt to match James’ vision for the sound of this album, there is a grand sense of cohesion evoked as a result despite the level of development and change this album captures.

Melancholy is still the dominant adjective that comes to mind with this album, like many of Blake’s previous releases. The tone is still quite sombre, but the rejuvenated approach to instrumentation allows a greater sonic exploration of the feeling and takes a more expansive look at feelings of intimacy, loss, disappointment, and personal development, with the lyrics being grandly accentuated by the atmosphere established through the flurry of instrumental cues.

Overall, it would not be a baseless claim to argue that Assume Form may be one of James Blake’s best projects – it’s easily one of the most instrumentally diverse, yet cohesive, electronic projects in recent memory, and his masterful touch in balancing so many moving elements acts as a representation of the raw talent he possesses. 2019’s music offerings have already begun to impress, and this album gives me high hopes for what else is on offer this year.

 

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Assume Form is out now.

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