James Blake’s Singular Stylings Find New Focus on ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’

There are few contemporary artists who manage to shuffle and realign elements of popular music into radically novel forms, and still preserve enough elemental appeal to strike a universal chord. James Blake has done just that, having reinvented himself in 2011, with his self-titled album, as a singer-songwriter with a sonorous croon, after years turning out post-dubstep productions of the most eccentric variety. His releases over the years have found him steadily settling deeper into his songcraft, but with the hyperactive vestiges always looming overhead, coming to notice in defining moments. Blake’s last album, 2019’s “Assume Form,” was a thoroughly realized record, displaying a refinement of instinct that reflected the full spectrum of music that cultivated it. His latest release, “Friends That Break Your Heart,” towers above that effort, with Blake’s avant sonic leanings and heartfelt songwriting inclinations coming together in an album that breaks new ground.       

Opener “Famous Last Words” begins with bleeps sketching out a melodic dot plot, over which Blake confesses, “I can’t believe I’m still talkin’ about you, that feeling… I should have lost it by now,” his quixotic desperation laid bare over the tinny, sparse backdrop. When Blake first took to singing on his self-titled album, after years of standing mute behind the decks, he instantly provoked plenty of swooning from the timbre of his voice alone, but he has refined his vocal delivery with every release, and has never sounded so instantly gripping as he does here. His singing is still informed by his characteristic quirks, with fleeting, alien jerks coloring the presentation, and verifying that you’re listening to no one other than Blake. He takes some sharp swings in stacked harmonies that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Dirty Projectors album. The song gracefully but relentlessly intensifies and dissipates, and at once, the stage is set for a radically original, emotive experience.     

“Life’s Not the Same” functions as a retrospective overview of all the defining aesthetic choices that Blake has teased to date. There is the crackling, grinding metronome percussion that opened his self-titled album in “Unluck.” Then come the pitched-up vocal samples that have been nothing new for decades, but always sounded strikingly original in the the context of Blake’s plaintive piano and eerie atmospherics. Blake sings, “So if you loved me so much,” with the pitched-up vocal continuing, “Why’d you go?,” its unnatural timbre capturing the irrational desperation of the feeling. Blake’s collaborative efforts have always seemed informed by the same idiosyncratic nuance as every isolated sample that makes its way into his songs, and the tracks with featured guests on the new album take his auteurism to new heights. “Coming Back,” featuring SZA, is an absolute eureka moment. Blake’s unassuming, piano-backed ruminations find grounding when SZA’s emerges like a diva apparition, of sorts, and the track simulates a walk through a club, with a day’s sentimental musings drowning in sub bass, wheezing synths, and all the machinery of Blake’s early productions. 

Rappers chiming in to drop quick verses in songs from artists safely outside of the greater hip-hop sphere is something that rarely works out without seeming forced, enjoyable only if one focuses on the theoretical potential and ignores the glaring results. Blake however has such an alienly original approach to music altogether that he adeptly avoids these pitfalls. His collaborations with RZA and Travis Scott never lapsed into the cringey rap-sing-rap tomfoolery that seems unavoidable in such pursuits. “Frozen,” his collaboration with rappers Jid and SwaVay might be his most radically original crossover experiment yet. The track is a warped and skewered slab of grandstanding and graffiti through swamps and tunnels, with cartoonish monster voices running through frenetic cyphers and Blake’s soulful radiance beaming through jagged edges. Blake’s collaboration with Monica Martina, “Show Me,” is of an entirely different color, but realized with an equal precision of vision and potency. A well-timed lull in the tracklist, the track places Martina in the forefront with a silky soul finish, while Blake whiters in background before rising to the surface in one of his characteristic, dramatic swirls, this time assuming a ‘70s grandeur and theatricality. 

James Blake has masterfully utilized silence and open space in previous work to make his every gesture more impactful. On the new album, the same tendency persists, although it’s less noticeable. Blake seems to have naturally settled into patterns that capture his instincts with fewer overt gestures. Interspersed with the aforementioned tracks are songs like “Funeral,” which nods more to the material he visited on his recent release of covers by the likes of Joni Mitchell, highlighting simple songwriting chops and bare vulnerability. A kick-clap pulse delays with a drag that captures the feeling of being out of step, disoriented and immobilized by a surge of emotions, while Blake sings, “I know this feeling too well / Of being alive at your own funeral.” “Foot Forward” is a bit more streamlined of a song than one might expect from Blake, with a downright gushy chorus that strikes rather prematurely, but fits perfectly with the sentiment of proceding forward. 

“Say What You Will” finds Blake’s voice hovering over a subdued track of ‘60s vocal harmonies, his distance from the backdrop suggesting a faint grounding in recognizable signifiers, in the context of which he reaches far out and fully shines, soaring above the beat and the band, in a transcendent motion that reveals itself in the enlightened resignation of the refrain “Say What You WIll.” The song features one of Blake’s most moving vocal performances yet, a section of gliding falsetto delivered with a rapturous abandon that rings like the final refinement of an instinct long edging its way up. 

The unabashed vulnerability that has been an integral component of Blake’s appeal since he started singing comes out especially toward the end of the album. On the threadbare title track, Blake practically gasps his syllables, and quivers as he finishes the lines, singing, “I have haunted many photographs… And as many loves that have crossed my path / In the end, it was friends who broke my heart.” The song zeroes in on a subject largely overlooked. While relationships are expected to very likely fizzle out when passion runs its course, the dissolution of friendships can ultimately be even more debilitating. Taking the album’s lyrics altogether, it’s hard to imagine most of the songs were written about mere friendship, but it appears that the sentiment of this song was salient enough to warrant its designation as the title track. 

James Blake’s career trajectory is characterized by so many whimsical, wayward darts that it’s easy for fans to pass him off prematurely. His sudden dive from post-dubstep avant buzz into accessible singer-songwriter territory was only the first in a series of moves that show a bold disregard for categorization, or in other terms, a fearless commitment to artistic vision. Blake struck a nerve with his self-titled album, with his expressive, sonorous voice and wildly innovative sound design. He settled into that mold for three more albums, then threw curveballs by reverting back to both the electronic beginnings and the singer-songwriting foundations in EP releases last year. Now, he returns with all of the adventurous instincts and edge, all the passion and profundity, refined after years of experimentation into their most potent and poignant form to date.   

Friends That Break Your Heart” releases Oct. 8 on Apple Music.