Review: James Blake, ‘Assume Form’

The elusive English singer-songwriter peels back the veil for the most captivating alt-pop record of recent years.

James Blake is no stranger to the hip hop and R&B stratosphere. Originally emerging as an electronic producer, Blake has collaborated with the likes of Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Sampha, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z and Travis Scott. His contributions often go unnoticed but are at the helm of major artistic statements, delicately crossing the borders of genre. In 2016, Blake stated: “When I first worked with Beyonce, there was kind of a moment where my perspective changed a little bit on where I could be in music. I think I’ve always felt, or at least for a long time, that my position in music was to bubble under mainstream, and be kind of like a musician’s musician.” Three years on from his previous album, and amidst an influential relationship with Jameela Jamil, Blake seeks to bring this new perspective into reality.

Through the newfound inspiration from his collaborators and his own personal life, James Blake composes twelve gorgeous odes of romantic alt-pop to surely secure itself as one of the best releases of 2019.

Assume Form thrives off the potion of pure infatuation. Blending gentle vocals with minimalist production results in some of the most chilling songs Blake has ever released. Standout cut “Mile High” with Travis Scott and Metro Boomin produces a riveting atmosphere that is both moody and pretty. Blake’s vocals switch from groans to angelic cries, elevated to their peak when layered with Travis Scott’s auto-croons (“Lasting like Duracell / 40 days, 40 nights”). It is nocturnal, perfect for a late-night drive. “Tell Them” is as upbeat the album gets, embellished with Metro Boomin’s snares and hi-hats as Blake ponders over a one-night stand. It is a song that is far removed from the rest of the album’s musical palette but proves just how successfully Blake is able to blend genres.

For more songs than not, Blake translates his infatuation to the listener so they feel what he feels. “Into the Red” leaves the listener in a trance, assuming the form of an Eastern lullaby that personifies love. The beauty of Assume Form continues on “Barefoot in the Park”; Blake and Spanish singer Rosalía combine on the hook to create a graceful duet. Less is more when all the song needs is captivating vocals and a stable metaphor.

All across the album, Blake is more poetic than he is lyrical. Thoughtful gems are sprinkled over every song and verse, such as on “Mile High” (“The lesson’s always there / That less is always more”), “Into the Red” (“She was my gold rush”) and “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” (“You are my fear of death / You wave my fear of self”). The pinnacle of the poetry of Assume Form arrives on “Are You in Love?”, led by the single lyric: “Are you in love? / Do your best impression for me”. The gospel-inspired track is another display of beautiful composition that carries all throughout the album.

Even towards the back end, Assume Form refuses to lose steam. Just when you think Blake should have run out of ways to describe his love, “Power On” introduces another romantic metaphor. This time, Blake focuses on taking accountability for mistakes, in an attempt to better a relationship. Once the synthesiser kicks in, “Power On” transports the listener to a depth of hypnosis, the type that one would feel when under the control of “love”.

As the album reaches it final points, the content of Assume Form slowly shifts from Blake and his partner to just himself. “Don’t Miss It” is a chilling confession of depression and anxiety, most notably professing escapism from the outside world (“I could switch off whenever I like / I could sleep whenever I like / I could leave in the middle of the night”). The track is haunting, functioning best as a musical monologue than a traditional hook-and-verse song. Closing track “Lullably for My Insomniac” is the equivalent of Sampha’s “What Shouldn’t I Be?”, a skeletal, melancholic ‘fade-to-black’ moment for Blake and his psyche. There is a childish innocence to the closer, mainly because the song was literally written to help someone sleep. Once the song ends, there is an automatic instinct to hit the replay button and re-experience the beauty all over again.

In 48 minutes, James Blake leaves nothing left to be desired. Each track is painted with a stroke of genius, enchanting the listener without a misstep. Whether it is the songwriting or minimalist production, Blake faultlessly expresses gratitude for his vulnerability, and appreciation for being taken out of a dark place. It may be January, but Assume Form will most certainly qualify as the greatest display of musical artistry of 2019, and perhaps the decade. After years of his melancholic aesthetic, James Blake has finally reached his final form.

Rating: 10 / 10

Best tracks: “Into the Red”, “Power On”, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Don’t Miss It”, “Are You In Love?”, “Mile High”, “Lullaby for My Insomniac”, “Tell Them”, “Where’s the Catch?”