James Blake Crafts Controlled Chaos on ‘Assume Form’
James Blake began as an electronic artist, churning out an off-kilter strain of understated, avant dubstep. In 2011, he suddenly incorporated the piano, began singing, and gained immense critical acclaim, demanding attention with his distinctive voice. His approach to sound, and his ability to construct immediately infectious songs out of radically bold sound collages make him a vanguard in popular music. His latest record, “Assume Form” delivers everything fans have come to expect him, possibly in the most cohesive form yet.
The title track starts things off with twinkling keys, and Blake’s voice sounding slightly different, as it has steadily evolved, although still having his special idiosyncrasies. Then enters the type of understated, glitchy percussion that has been largely absent from his work since his 2011 self-titled album. Perhaps “Assume Form” is meant as a “return to form.” More likely, however, it describes the coalescence of all Blake’s scattered eccentricities over the years, finally falling into place in a recognizable mold. The song unfolds and expands into full orchestral proportions, whereupon a minimal hip-hop beat takes root, and a pitched-up, eerie vocal sample enters the mix, and Blake croons over the mist in his peculiar blend of falsetto and alien baritone. “Mile High” is possibly Blake’s most overtly hip-hop track to date, featuring producer Metro Boomin and the larger-than-life Travis Scott. Scott’s and Blake’s voices, both known to shift registers abruptly, seem to blend together in a way that gives the song a warping, angular, kaleidoscopic quality.
“Tell Them” at first recalls “Life Round Here” from 2013’s “Overgrown,” but quickly morphs into something altogether different. Moses Sumney is featured, and his vocals sound quite awkward, at moments, approaching screeching cat timbres. Then again, Blake has always constructed his masterpieces by assembling bizarre sounds into asymmetrical structures that somehow stand on balance with pristine elegance, and this song is no different. “Into the Red” begins with Blake in his most sonorous voice, the one that emerged in full form on “Overgrown,” and always makes crowds swoon. Vocal harmonies layer over one another until a whole choir of Blakes are in concert.
Blake has always been rather fearless in his experimentation with unconventional sound palettes, especially in terms of percussion. The pitter patter backbone of “Barefoot in the Park” is a prime example. Spanish singer Rosalia, who could hardly have a more distinctive voice, contributes vocals, and gives the song an otherworldly character. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” finds Blake soaring, sounding sonorous, and even angelic at moments, and is testament to how much he’s grown as a singer. There are the slickly-coordinated tempo shifts that have been a signature of Blake since his early dubstep days. “Are You In Love” sounds immediately like it could have been created by no other human being than James Blake. It’s mellow, deconstructed, warm soul, with sci-fi synth arpeggios cascading jaggedly at a boldly amped-up volume. The lyrics too are priceless: “Are you in love? Do your best impression for me.”
“Where’s the Catch” begins dim-lit and off-kilter. Blake pulls another of his trademark tricks and throws in a flash of Auto-tune at the most arbitrary moment imaginable, and suddenly Andre 3000 takes over. Old school Outkast fans will be in for a major treat, as Andre returns to full-on rapping for the first time in years, and absolutely kills it. Blake has always layered sounds with a particular ingenuity, and the way he does so in this song is reminiscent of his earliest productions, from long before he began singing. “I’ll Come Through” layers hazy vocal harmonies over thrillingly edgy, rickety percussion. Over this backdrop, Blake sings with a command and passion that sends chills. “Power On” begins sounding rather conventional for James Blake, until harmonic layers pile up, again forming an entire choir of Blakes, and a skewed, mutating synth bass line creeps in, and tectonic shifts ensue.
“Don’t Miss It” finds Blake at the piano, sounding almost like a traditional singer-songwriter, but of course with enough quirk to make the song entirely his own. There’s a cryptic, shrieking sample, of sorts, in the backdrop, and Blake delves into a type of fluttering vibrato, the likes of which have probably never been heard before in recorded music. The wonderfully titled, spacious and ethereal “Lullaby for My Insomniac” slowly pans out, bringing the riot of an album to an elegant, serene close.
There are hardly more distinctive and innovative voices in contemporary music than James Blake. Over the years, he’s dabbled in various styles, but always turned out sounds that are truly unique. “Assume Form” is virtually the amalgamation of everything he’s done to date. Blake manages to craft accessible songs from the most oblique structures imaginable, and it makes for a thoroughly exhilarating listen.
“Assume Form” is available Jan. 18 on Apple Music.