James Blake’s ability to combine wildly different genres into cohesive songs is the most unique aspect of his work. Blake’s powerful vocals and immense knowledge of different production styles allowed him to create his first three standout albums.
On his fourth studio album, “Assume Form,” the London-based artist builds on the eclectic nature of his first three albums and creates an incredibly romantic and thoughtful record that is only hindered by some somewhat dull songs in the beginning and end of the tracklist.
The album kicks off with disjointed, ambient piano melodies on the title-track “Assume Form.” Blake dots the song with wandering vocal melodies and winding string sections, which give the song a haunting feel. While this track isn’t bad by any means, it’s too formless (yes, I see the irony here) and repetitive to feel interesting. The next song “Mile High” is highlighted by features from hip-hop superstars Travis Scott and Metro Boomin. While “Mile High” is undoubtedly catchy (mostly because of Scott’s melodically excellent chorus), the song’s generic trap beat doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the record.
The third track, however, is where the album gains its footing. “Tell Them” features gravelly vocals from Moses Sumney and an intricate trap beat, produced in part by Metro Boomin, which includes some graceful string phrases and booming 808s. Lyrically, “Tell Them” manages to give a surprisingly refreshing and thoughtful take on a one-night stand.
Track four, “Into The Red,” is a glaring high point on the record. The song is a beautifully written tribute to Blake’s partner, Jameela Jamil. “But for me, she goes way in, way in, way into the red,” Blake sings on the chorus. Besides the heartfelt lyrics, this cut has an earworm of a piano melody and delicate vocals from Blake.
The next two songs continue the love song trend started by “Into The Red.” “Barefoot In The Park” gets a major vocal boost from rising flamenco star Rosalía. Her and Blake’s voices mesh wonderfully together and the song gives off an incredibly elegant feel. “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” has perhaps the best production on the album with its spacey, layered vocal samples and a dense soundscape.
From there, the album begins a short dark patch with the track “Are You In Love?.” It features minimalistic instrumentation and lyrics about faking your way through a relationship. That dark patch continues on the next track, “Where’s The Catch?,” which has a tremendous verse from rap legend André 3000 with themes of demise and depression. These darker cuts prevent the album from becoming too lovesick and samey, and it gives Blake a chance to explore some different themes and production styles.
The final third of the album begins with yet another love song, “I'll Come Too.” The relaxing production and Blake's crooning vocals give the track a somewhat vintage feel. “I'll Come Too” is followed up by the confessional song “Power On,”in which Blake admits his current relationship has made him rethink how he interprets love. It's songs like “Power On” and “Into The Red” that cement this album's place as one of the best love albums I've heard in a long time.
The final two tracks, “Don't Miss It” and “Lullaby For My Insomniac” are solid, but “Lullaby” might actually lull you to sleep while listening to it. I would've liked the album to end on a better note, but “Don't Miss It” is just fine with its progressively building instrumentation and dark lyrics.
Yes, “Assume Form” suffers from a couple awkward production detours and bland tracks, but the meat of this album contains Blake's best writing and production yet. “Into The Red” is one of the best love songs I've heard in years, and “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is a production masterclass. The guest appearances from André 3000, Rosalía, and Moses Sumney are executed well and do a good job of complementing Blake’s dreamlike vocals. Overall, “Assume Form” features Blake at his best and proves the genre-bending production guru still has a few more tricks up his sleeve.