James Blake’s Ether Becomes Mush

The influential electronic musician’s fourth album, Assume Form, embraces pop sentimentality with mixed results.

James Blake press image
Amanda Charchian

“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them,” James Blake sang on loop for 2011’s “I Never Learnt to Share,” a defining moment in one of the 21st century’s most improbably important music careers. It was an evocative bit of poetry (what did you do at playtime, James Blake?) that, he said, was mostly selected for how it sounded rather than what it said. As keyboards wiggled, wheezed, and died around his lonesome whimper, the listener could guess at what it meant for Blake, an only child, to sing about siblings. Or they could just enjoy it as a mantra, dissolving the pesky idea of meaning itself.

Blake has become an influencer mostly through pure sound. The moody electronic styles of the U.K. legend—the hollow thwacks of garage, the algorithmic swarms of IDM, the black-hole heaviness of dubstep, the hiss and friction of grime—found new audiences when Blake lovingly fused them with hangdog falsetto, churchy harmonics, and structures that were not quite dance and not quite pop, but rather sculptural. The computer-generated ooziness of so much mainstream production now owes something to the artist, and superstars keep calling on him for tasteful helpings of digital wear and tear. Beyoncé, for example, took a sonic sketch by Blake and charged it with political and personal subtext on Lemonade: exactly what his music does not require on its own.

But on his fourth album, Assume Form, the 30-year-old Blake has lots to say. A few years into a relationship with the actress Jameela Jamil, Blake wants the world to know that he’s no “sad boy.” He also seems to want to reclaim his influence with some big hits of his own. As he sings on the title track, he’s leaving “the ether” so as to be more direct, warmer. It’s a sometimes awe-inspiring but often awkward transformation, that of a one-time Pinocchio who’s super-duper eager to inform strangers that he’s a real kid. Late in the album comes one tellingly clumsy line, delivered with Coldplay-ian intonations, plainly thirsty to be paired with Instagram sunsets: “Drop a pin on the mood that you’re in.”

As a headphones experience, Assume Form does deliver the expected shivers. Waterfalling pianos on the opener create an immersion-tank floating sensation. The centerpiece celebration of domestic coexistence that is “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” surfs waves of doo-wop vocals: a lovely idea, executed well. Two team-ups with the hip-hop producer Metro Boomin—especially the one featuring the rapper Travis Scott—make familiar templates feel newly sleek and strange. André 3000’s virtuosically neurotic verse on “Where’s the Catch?” nestles amid catchy chaos. On “Are You In Love?” Blake’s aria-like performance gets clobbered eventually by Hitchcock orchestration, in an ugly-beautiful kind of way.

But the transporting sounds jostle against the voice of their newly earthbound creator. A track like “Into the Red,” which appears to be about how nice it is that Blake’s girlfriend is rich like him (“She’s no trader for a joint account,” he sings) is typical in that it’s stuck between over-specificity and artsy code. It doesn’t help that folksy plinking adds to the sense of twee. Blake’s no doubt just describing his lovely life, but there’s something wedding toast–like about other lyrics praising a partner who’s akin to “his imaginary friend,” to whom he coos, “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone.” It’s relatable, but partly because everyone knows a couple who flaunts their cuddling a little too much.

Criticizing such lyrics feels rude, I’ll admit, because they explicitly describe someone who’s avoided intimacy and vulnerability for too long. Blake does land some killer moments by mining his fear of commitment, as when on “Don’t Miss It” a litany of selfish thoughts culminates in this: “I could leave in the middle of the night.” The music drops out, and his voice is a slither. The temptation to bail when things are good is Blake’s great vice, and André 3000’s verse on “Where’s the Catch?” is the album’s definitive treatment of it, describing an alchemist who turns silver to aluminum to dirt. Blake’s own mewlings don’t get any more vivid than that.

Still, Blake is such a skilled technician that even his soggiest mash notes can’t be entirely dismissed. “Power On,” an anthem that could compete for radio space with the likes of Khalid or, yes, Coldplay, features a big weird synth line that cuts the cloyingness. “Don’t Miss It” ends with an eerie update on the old Radiohead trick of making it seem as though the singer’s getting sucked into the sky. The fact that “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” will definitely end up in an AI-scripted Netflix rom-com doesn’t mean its multilayered harmonies aren’t glorious. It’s tempting to lay Assume Form’s flaws on the fact that Blake’s muse is no longer solitude, but really the risk he’s taken is in overexplaining his art. Love isn’t unlike loneliness in this way: more aptly felt than described.