Well, it didn’t take 2019 too long to produce its first truly brilliant album. “To @jameelajamil [sic] I love you and you are the reason this album exists”, said James Blake about his girlfriend, of his fourth record, Assume Form, and, in many ways, that’s the greatest way to describe the record. It’s a love letter of an album and one that instantly opposes his last record, The Colour in Anything. While that was overlong, and at times a messy demise into sheer melancholy, Assume Form is a far more refined effort that sees Blake explore his emotions in a far more productive way. Arguably his most complete record, Assume Form implements elements of hip-hop and electronica to produce his greatest atmosphere yet. It’s a beautiful, soaring and ambient modernist pop record if ever there was one.
Perhaps even more important than on his previous work, Blake has, once again, made good use of collaborations on Assume Form. Early on, the Travis Scott featuring ‘Mile High’ provides an early highlight with its laid-back Metro Boomin-produced beat, and Scott’s outrageously languid delivery. Elsewhere, Spanish rising star Rosalía continues the breezy pop theme with the beautiful ‘Barefoot in the Park’. With Moses Sumney and Outkast’s Andre 3000 also appearing, it doesn’t just make Assume Form a twisting and turning tale between pop and hip-hop’s crème de la crème but it also exhibits Blake’s sheer pop expertise.
For every song, no matter the superstar who appears alongside him, it’s made clear that this is Blake’s project through and through. At its best, when Blake is pouring his heart out, Assume Form showcases the maestro as an exceptionally talented producer as well as a wonderful songwriter. The best song on the album ‘Into the Red’ – one of the finest ballads to comes from Blake’s mind – showcases this lyrical mastery with aplomb. “While I haven’t been living until now / Even doing nothing I am making the most of somehow,” he sings beautifully about his relationship with Jamil. “And the credit goes to her as the bad days become rare,” he continues, in a song that is as beautiful as its lyrical content. Likewise, on ending song ‘Lullaby For My Insomniac’ – a hauntingly beautiful track that recalls Brian Eno’s ambience – he pines: “I’ll stay up too / I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow if you do”. Impressively, Blake constantly straddles the line between sentiment and mawkish and, as far as albums about love go, this is as affecting, stirring and striking as it gets.
A record with the iconic production you’d expect of James Blake, but with even better songwriting, a happier disposition and excellent guest collaborations, Assume Form is an instant classic. A much more straight-to-the-point work, eschewing much of the experimentation of his earlier work, it’s a record that is intensely listenable as well as passionate and heartwarming. Without a doubt, James Blake should go down as one of the finest musicians of his generation. No longer just a “sad boy” – a stupid title by any account and one that the artist himself has lambasted – Blake has come of age in some style.