Fans of James Blake subscribe to his icy, somber atmosphere and to the beauty within his sadness. On “Assume Form,” however, his sound doesn’t take a dramatic sonic left turn, but a wavering, warm light is breaking through his curtains. Blake’s previous studio album, “The Colour in Anything,” presented his typical themes of bleak isolation — the album cover is literally a drawing of Blake standing alone. But now, over 2 years later, James Blake turns his emotions blissfully outward — sheepish but hopeful.
After the album’s release, Blake took to Twitter to shine a light on the album’s catalyst — Jameela Jamil. The actress and Blake have been together since around 2015, tending to their relationship in Los Angeles. Her footprint is left all over the album. From uncharacteristically lovey-dovey lyrics to an unconventional flavor of optimism, it is evident that Blake has found himself in another.
And in the spirit of otherness, Blake makes exceptional use of his collaborators. “Mile High,” a somewhat unprecedented collaboration between Blake, Atlanta producer Metro Boomin and international superstar Travis Scott is incredibly cohesive. Blake perfectly utilizes Travis Scott’s sleepy delivery to construct that tunnel of love ride “Astroworld” was missing. Furthermore, Blake calls on rising flamenco-pop pioneer Rosalía on “Barefoot in the Park.” The two dive into a gorgeous power duet — Rosalía’s sweet, silky purr ties into Blake’s glacial croon effortlessly. André 3000 emerges to break his approximately annual rap silence to deliver a chilling perspective on his reality with depression. On “Where’s the Catch?” Andre looks to the sky and asks, “Exorcism, pessimism has arisen / There's no reason really, treason to myself so silly / So perfect, so perfect, so why do I look for curtains?”
Blake’s transition from introspective to intimate is seamless. He is able to craft lavish love ballads with minimal hiccups and potholes. “Lullaby for My Insomniac” — the album’s closer — is a simple, sweet ode to slumber. Blake promises his insomnia-ridden lover, “If you can't / I'll stay up, I'll stay up too / I'd rather see everything as a blur tomorrow / If you do.” Blake even musters up enough courage to delve into the mildly raunchy — “And everything slows, everything's rose now / You use both hands, I use both hands.” Slow down, James.
The only significant misstep in the album is the third track, “Tell Them,” Blake’s collaboration with LA singer/songwriter Moses Sumney and Metro Boomin’. Sumney’s vocals are certainly amusing, but the track takes the album into a stylistic left-field that it never returns to. The drum pattern is jarringly energetic, and the subject matter is an awkwardly analytical glance into a one-night-stand-gone-existential.
All in all, “Assume Form” demonstrates Blake at his most genuine and his most vulnerable. Blake’s excitement and insecurity in his romantic exploration is almost endearingly childlike, like a bubbly kid in a candy store. Except, in this situation, it’s a kid with highly developed and refined emotional intelligence. This album is the culmination of desires fulfilled, of wounds mended and of love found. On “Assume Form,” Blake turns his “I’s” into “we’s,” allowing his listeners to find the beauty in his contentment.
The record has an air of longevity about it, but it is hard to place a definitive finger on why. Perhaps it’s the intimacy, perhaps it’s the vulnerability. Perhaps it is because Blake can talk about love in a way that does not make him out to be some benevolent male superhero, or as if he deserves anything. Perhaps it is his humility. Either way, “Assume Form” is a record for Blake that, no matter where his career or personal life goes, will be a significant “remember when” moment. Whatever new challenges and obstacles stand in Blake’s way, fans will look back on “Assume Form” as either the record where Blake took his first step towards ascension or where his downwards spiral was just beginning.