JANUARY – Assume Form by James Blake

 

So, I wasn’t really sure what I’d do for January AOTM. It’s been stressful and difficult few months and my best intentions of getting January finished by early new year came up short of nothing more than inspiration. I just didn’t see much interesting around, and I wasn’t listening to much new stuff either: even 6 Music wasn’t on much any more. The travails of a young family, brutal work and no downtime left me delving back into the past (Eno, mostly) trying to find some tranquility in the modern noise.

But then this arrived, almost serendipitously, out of the mist. And of course, James Blake was both a great option and an album that would server as a hopeful antidote to the current messy modern world. It’s only a bonus that I’ve been a big fan of his, but the question I wondered was: could another album of his songs do anything new? Perhaps it didn’t have to. His music was mostly only even in a genre of its own that – while he gained many imitators – he seemed to have his very own dubby, falsetto, reverb-heavy, then four-four slices of music that was both rich and warm then desolate and icy.

So what did I expect of this? Nothing, as I’d had no advance warning or visibility, and that’s sometimes no bad thing. In my first few listens here – a week or rotation has already been hugely enjoyable if embryonic in my opinions of this as a review at arm’s length – I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve heard. For a songwriter and sonic experimentalist that has carved out such strange spaces over his previous albums, he’s also managed to take in emotional lyrics, albeit some that so feel wrapped up in his musical ambition that that skill is lost.

Some of his previous work is staggering – Digital Lion, Overgrown, Radio Silence – tracks that only get better with time, and so this has a high standard to follow. I’m not sure all of the LP hits those heights. Some of it is pretty cold, perhaps it’ll warm up over time, but there are some gems. It seems obvious but Where’s The Catch (above) with Andre 3000 at last breaks some of the constrictions of its companions that sometimes feels too forced and deliberately restrained. When beats are as crisp, and warmth flecks the darkness, you do wonder why he doesn’t want to break free as much elsewhere. I’d love to see more of that. However, the title track is wonderful, and while I am not part of the auto-tune crowd, Blake’s collaborations are inventive and interesting.

In short, it’s a work in progress, but I’m hugely enjoying having new James Blake in my life, and it’s just the sort of music to shut out the noise, the angst, the anger, the stress and the discord. I can, at least, salute that.

9 comments

  1. nolankane706

    The first to reply to an album of the month? New year, new me?

    With hesitation I have been excited that James Blake was chosen for album of the month. You see I have a checkered past with Mr. Blake. His earlier releases “CMYK”, “I Only Know What I Know”, “Limit To Your Love”, etc. were so different than everything at the time and found a place in my world. As time passed I found James Blake a bit same-ish. I tended to like the songs he had done with other people more interesting; primarily for the other people such as Chance or Kendrick.

    You see there is always a want for an artist to evolve but in the direction you want. He was evolving but I didn’t get the direction he was going or perhaps didn’t see the evolution.

    Assume Form is a strong sign that he has found a space that he is comfortable in. There tends to be pieces of old James Blake that I felt had gone missing mixed with a more mature open artist. He also seems to have found a happy medium between collaboration but keeping his own stamp on things. “Where’s The Catch” is a great example of this. As a side note on both this appearance and Frank Ocean’s album confirmed that Andre 3000 is an immense guest to have on your album. Where is the Andre 3000 album?

    “I’ll Come Too” is an amazing song. You’re there in that song. In the car. Driving in what ever car you imagine. Seriously, when’s the last time a song has done that for you? Fully put you in that place?

    I’m finding this album is moving from background music to a heavily played album. It’s a grower. Perhaps maybe his best release. Thanks for rolling the dice with this brother Guy!

  2. misterstory

    I too have a troublesome past with Mr. Blake. I really don’t want to be ‘that guy’ but I too liked his early stuff CMYK particularly. I then bought his self-titled album, played it twice put it back physically and never want back metaphorically. I recall a Facebook post by Nolan to the effect of ‘Thanks James £9.99 down the drain’ as he had done exactly the same as me. He was praised to high heaven for something that for me really didn’t work. I kept seeing his albums receiving great praise and I kept meaning to go back but never did. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong mood etc.

    When Guy suggested the album I first thought, ok, lets have another whirl, then I thought of David squirming in his cords as he considered a veto but knew he couldn’t really. I then did what I sometimes do (rightly or wrongly) and looked at some reviews – I actually only looked at one review, Pitchfork that I think scored it 5.8. I deflated a little from a relatively under-inflated position.

    … and then I listened to it. And I love it. I mean I properly love it. It’s really doing it for me. I read a really interesting article on criticism the other day. The basic theme was most reviews should read ‘if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this sort of thing’. There are obvious exceptions, the amazing albums that everyone should give a go and the obvious duds. In the middle is a bunch of stuff that may not change the world but if you like it, you’ll like it. I think Pitchfork placed this album in the lower ends of that category. I can’t work out if I like it cause its my kind of thing or if it is really good. Considering my previous form with James I am totally confused. One thing going for it is that I can work with it on, my wife likes it, my kids seem to be happy to put up with it so it is getting played a lot.

    I find it hard to define my stand out tracks as I truly like them all. There’s the catchier obvious tracks but then there’s the more emotionally raw and honest tracks and then the tracks with production mood to die for.

    I will be very surprised if I am not listening to this all year and it finding it’s way on to my 2019 favourite list (you know the kind I’ve still not written for 2018 yet).

    Thanks Brother Guy, I continue to love this blog.

  3. David Allison

    So. First of all, apologies for taking so long to respond. We are WAY into February. My work has gone crazy (in a very pleasing way), but it has meant that free time has become hard to find.

    Anyway. Onto Mr Blake. I have actually been listening regularly to this for weeks. I can’t think of another album that has shifted so radically in my mind as this. Initially, I thought it was typical Blake – clever, wonky, atmospheric, and maybe lacking something. That is honestly my experience of him in the past. His first two albums I enjoyed a great deal, but there is something that stops me returning to them.

    And then it hit me. Or rather, one song unlocked the album for me. That song was ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’. I was like – hang on, this is a hit of EUPHORIA. This is a straight down the line love song. It’s a fucking ballad, for god’s sake. And then, off the back of that song, the rest of the album began to make sense. I REALLY like this. Maybe I like this more than his lauded earlier work. The difference? There is some joy in the darkness here. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!

    This album is a made by a man thinking about love. There’s bloody love songs everywhere. Power On! Are You In Love? Assume Form. Listen to all those major chords, the rising sequences, face up, staring towards the sun. There is optimism here. It is SO much more enjoyable to listen to. Even the heartbreak of the astonishing Don’t Miss It sounds strangely hopeful as a melody, if not lyrically.

    Finally, it’s interesting that the collaborations are, for me, easily the weakest. I like the Moses Sumney, but the Travis Scott/Metro Boomin track is Blake at his absolutely most generic. And the Andre 3000 is just rubbish. As a result, it’s a weirdly sequenced album – two of those collabs are tracks 2 and 3, and it makes you think it’s going to be a much more bland album than it is. A lot of the most precious moments are later in the sequence. It makes for a really strong back end, but it’s frustratingly slow to get going.

    Anyway. I agree with Brother Joey. I think I’ll be playing this all year. It reminds me of Jamie XX’s In Colour, another album full of euphoric sounds that totally transcended its genre. Great choice, Brother Guy!

  4. misterstory

    Welcome to Feb David. Glad to hear to work is crazy in a pleasing way. Nice one. I love this more and more each time I listen to it and I am listening to it loads. I’ve decided not to think about it too much as I even like the more generic tracks that David doesn’t. If I de-construct it I stop allowing it to affect me and remove myself emotionally and have decided to ‘go with it’. I’m really surprised by this in a lovely, blog-affirming way. Oh and Andre 3000 … I didn’t like that track either but it has grown on me. I think he is a really hit and miss guest …. remember Solo on ‘Blonde’ god that’s good.

  5. whyohwhyohwhy

    Well, this has been a nice bit of reading. I think it mirrors my experience of the album in that I knew I’d like musically but I wasn’t sure for a while. It’s really grown on me, and I’ve had it on heavy rotation since it arrived.

    Is it his best work? No, I’m not sure I share the same sentiment as some of you. I listened to Overgrown and The Colour In Me this week and I still think they’re stronger albums. Particularly Overgrown. There’s some great tracks on it, but nothing tops Retrograde for me, ever.

    But I’m really pleased on the reactions. Seems like we’re liking it. Sometimes I’m glad to wait for albums. But this was a total fluke.

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