Despite his Grammy nods and Mercury Prizes, his high-profile collaborations with glitterati, James Blake is not so much a pop star as he is pop dark matter—a mysterious, almost hypothetical energy between the stars, enclosing them in an icy-hot medium of crepuscular electronic music and molten vocalization. The 30-year-old British producer sings like a chain-smoking angel grown morose with frustrated yearning and ennui, gazing down on weird obelisks of sub bass and bristling forests of drums. His sui generis sound has drawn the interest of everyone from Beyoncé and Bon Iver to Kendrick Lamar (on the Black Panther soundtrack). But after a third record, 2016’s The Colour In Anything, doused in warm bathwater, Blake’s cold, ethereal nature is continuing to thaw on his fourth, which dropped on January 18 after an abrupt billboard rollout in London and New York. Though it fits in a trajectory we couldn’t see until it was complete, Assume Form is the only kind of album our most saturnine tastemaker could surprise us with: an ordinary one, conversant with idioms of its day, fixing intelligible emotions on a real-life beloved.
Of course, “ordinary” is relative, and if the gospel-step scrollwork of Assume Form were by someone else, we’d call it visionary. Blake is coloring in lines he helped draw. But by his usual standard of bending physics to his will, it’s a conventional contemporary pop record, mainly R&B with fine traceries of dubstep and trap. The change shows in a pair of tracks with Metro Boomin. Where the old Blake was unstable, too anxious to be still, now he can just ride the stutter of a laid-back loop of Auto-Tune rap with Travis Scott on “Mile High.” “Tell Them,” featuring the inimitable Moses Sumney in an approachable mood, is like an easy-listening version of cryptic masterpiece “Life Round Here.” Undersea torch song “I’ll Come Too,” all beautifully blue and green, flirts with Lukas Graham-style inspo-pop, and the peeled synths of “Are You In Love?” don’t disguise that our James is basically on some Teddy Pendergrass shit.
Blake’s 2011 debut LP was like U.K. dance music playing on Earth as heard from purgatory, the powerful surges registering as faint dots and fine tangles, the chord changes stretching out to whole songs. Follow-up Overgrown wrote romantic desolation in hieroglyphics, darkly propulsive and exquisitely alien. Then The Colour In Anything showed us the softer, gooier Blake hiding behind those sheer, blank planes, being in love and self-indulging, as one does. On Assume Form, the desperate unwellness that made Overgrown so alarming and enticing is gone, and so is the lukewarm paddling of The Colour In Anything. James Blake, improbably, seems to have come to rest.
Much has been made of Blake showing us his undistorted face on the album cover, and he spells out his MO on the title track, the slow, low chime of his vibrato floating through piano rills and claps: “I will assume form / I’ll leave the ether.” This has to do with more than his musical development and persona. Assume Form is overtly about depression and gratitude for the partner who sees you through it. While it probes the contents of sadness and isolation, it does so from just outside of them, a secure and acute vantage. On “Into The Red,” which yokes little harps and knocks into a gentle ’70s singer-songwriter ramble, Blake catalogs “the list of things I could live without,” slicing into the tender fact of how depression strips away desire. But the music is too warm and calm for the sentiment to be chilling.
Throughout the album, Blake revisits familiar devices with his new impulses: wanting to be perceived, not to hide, wanting to connect, not to obscure. “Where’s The Catch?” harks back to “Take A Fall For Me,” the last time he apparently said to a legendary but reclusive rapper, “Spit the most random shit you can think of,” and it worked. This time, instead of RZA talking about squid hugs and poltergeists, it’s André 3000 talking about mystical pets and calamine, while the lowest piano keys bleed sinister sub bass. Album highlight “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” recalls the Blake of yore, but instead of scissoring sideways through time, he contents himself with cutting it into lacy symmetries, like a child making paper snowflakes—just an elegant whir, the vocal floating atop it with open-hearted emotion. “Content” is the key word. Assume Form casts Blake’s prior albums in a new light, as does the once-secretive young maestro’s new openness about his life and his struggles. What sounded like someone trying to dive down into the inkiest depths of his soul turns out to have been someone trying to swim up out of them.