Album Review: Review: James Blake Goes From Post-Dubstep Auteur To Pop Star With New Album

8 October 2021 | 3:49 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"Blake has achieved a rare consistency. But he's also cleared an alternative musical space to explore in future."

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Who imagined that James Blake would go from being a post-dubstep soul auteur to pop star? The Brit, now residing in Hollywood Hills, is increasingly nearly as omnipresent as The Weeknd. He's just released his fifth album, Friends That Break Your Heart (FTBYH), amid an industrious COVID-19 iso period. Most surprisingly, FTBYH is a collection of subversively countercultural West Coast beach songs – Blake flirting with psychedelia as Californian mythology seeps into his avant-soul.

Through the pandemic Blake aired standalone singles such as the glitchily blissed-out You're Too Precious, the Before EP, and the Covers mini-album (including his rendition of Frank Ocean's Godspeed). He's also been involved in albums from Kehlani, slowthai and Dave. But FTBYH ushers in a new phase.

Though a formally-trained pianist, Blake launched his career as a bedroom producer, trailing the resolutely anonymous Burial with underground classics like CMYK. In 2011, he premiered as a 'singer/songwriter' with his transformative eponymous debut. Blake radically reconfigured soul with IDM production techniques, while aesthetising interiority, melancholia and existentialism. For Overgrown, he wrote elliptically about his trans-Atlantic relationship with Warpaint's Theresa Wayman. Ironically, it revealed Blake's crossover potential, the cult industry fave receiving a leftfield Grammy nomination for "Best New Artist". In an era of curation, Blake was soon coveted as a collaborator in R&B and hip-hop circles, his contributions to especially Beyoncé's LEMONADE resonantly beautiful.

In 2016 the Londoner moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, presenter/actor/activist Jameela Jamil. The often inscrutable Blake alluded to experiences with loneliness, anxiety and depression on The Colour In Anything (TCIA). He subsequently challenged a Pitchfork reviewer's description of his song Don't Miss It as "sad boy music" as stigmatising and reductive, becoming a mental health advocate. More emotionally available, Blake then issued a demonstrative, sanguine and romantic album in 2019's Assume Form. This time, he collaborated extensively, liaising with everyone from US super-producer Metro Boomin to cred vocalists: Andre 3000, Travis Scott and, on the sensual Barefoot In The Park, ROSALÍA.

Touted as a "concept album", FTBYH feels like multiple arcs in Blake's life converging. He ruminates specifically on fractured friendships, resolving to let go of his insecurities – and to heal. The opener Famous Last Words, with Blake's layered harmonies, is cathartically wry rather than bitter. Still, Blake has ardent proclamations presumably to Jamil – the album closing with the intimate If I'm Insecure.

Sonically, FTBYH represents the other side of Assume Form with its expansive vision and lucidity. Blake delivers quieter, softer songs with sparer arrangements – as exemplified by the subliminal Life Is Not The Same (curiously, 88rising's Joji co-produces). 

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On his debut, Blake titled two tracks after the ancient tidal island Lindisfarne in England. But FTBYH revels in the warmer Californian climate, feeling like music to listen to during a Big Sur road trip. Blake might be contemporising the '70s psy-soul of Motown Records' ephemeral Californian arm, MoWest. The lead single, Say What You Will, isn't far in spirit from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons' The Night, oddly a Northern soul standard. Nevertheless, Blake declares his intention to stop competing with others, disavowing LA's hyper-careerism. Later, he revisits his old hymnal organ chords on Lost Angel Nights, the song betraying temporal angst, but ultimately liberating and very psych.

FTBYH finds Blake honing his songcraft, following that studious Covers set. Indeed, he may have composed his most classicist soul numbers. The lyrics, too, are unmediated, Blake allowing himself to convey greater vulnerability. Only Funeral is allegorical. Overall, there's less of the dramatic tension that defined past Blakeian epics like Retrograde, once bizarrely synced for the UK's forensic crime drama Silent Witness. Yet, at times, it sounds as if Blake is straining to reconcile his traditional and transgressive impulses. The trap banger Frozen – featuring Atlantan rappers JID and SwaVay – isn't wholly synchronised, the melody crushed by textural effects and any beat switch vaporising. 

Notably, Blake has continued his communal approach with FTBYH. He's reunited with Mount Kimbie's Dominic Maker, now his main studio cohort, and Jamil is credited as a co-producer. Blake worked with Metro Boomin on Assume Form's Travis Scott-carried Mile High, and the trap hitmaker again co-produces Foot Forward – distinguished by some concert hall piano. However, for the title-track, Blake connects with Cali vet Rick Nowels – who, in the '80s, established himself guiding records like Belinda Carlisle's Heaven Is A Place On Earth, but is today known as Lana Del Rey's go-to partner. The song broaches yacht rock, Nowels adding acoustic guitar. It's Blake at his least Blakeian.

The album's big features are lowkey. Blake's collab with SZA, Coming Back, is iconic, his vocals particularly expressive. Recounting a dignified romantic break-up, the tune is spliced with Warp-y acid bass, but it's not quite a clubby successor to TCIA's tech Timeless. And even Coming Back is surpassed by the hummingbird ballad Show Me – Blake duetting with Monica Martin, front-woman of the Mid-Western indie-folk group PHOX. Pretty, delicate and ethereal, Show Me evokes both Barefoot In The Park and Blake's luminous 2020 loosie Are You Even Real?, with a sprinkling of silver-screen soundtrack magic.

With FTBYH, Blake has achieved a rare consistency. But he's also cleared an alternative musical space to explore in future. By letting the sunshine (pop) in, Blake has created a rhapsody to growth.