James Blake sings the quiet parts loud; now a decade into his career, his arc is best charted through the evolution, and presentation, of his own introversion. Blake’s early EPs operated as soundtracks for solo clubbing, while his subsequent reinvention into a singer-producer captured conflicted internal monologues and ruminated on self-confessions. This intimacy has long provided his deconstructed grooves with an emotional throughline. But recently, that consistency has started to curdle into myopia — for both Blake the artist and Blake the public figure — and increased self-absorption in interviews has come with an uptick of unflattering tabloids. There was the news that Blake’s prospects at a Kanye feature turned out to be stillborn, due to a travel mishap, and then that a collaboration with real-life Recess character Chance the Rapper had been secretively scuttled. All this seemed to point to Blake being an isolated musical persona losing purchase, someone who increasingly came off as an artist who crowds collaborators out of the frame. It’s fitting, then — and theoretically welcome — that Blake’s latest release is his most upbeat, and his most populous, to date. Assume Form’s guest list is an astute who’s who of recently minted pop ascendants and up-and-comers on the cusp of stardom. And the results make for frequently scintillating collisions: “Mile High” sees trap producer Metro Boomin and rapper/singer Travis Scott apply their talents as filtered through Blake’s moody sense of longing, to moving effect, and a later cut, “Where’s the Catch?,” features an excellent Andre 3000 verse, enough to prompt that annual is-he-dropping-an-album fever. These highlights — along with Assume Form’s other collaborations — bring out the best in Blake both musically and in terms of this artist’s own narrative, in that they showcase his willingness to finally take cues from his peers.
Blake is still an unsympathetic protagonist (albeit a slightly happier one), and here his narratives are mired in his own perspectives, leaving him oblivious to their cloying neediness.
On his own, though, Blake doesn’t fare so well: throughout Assume Form, he obsesses over romantic longing, making it hard to ignore his high profile relationship with TV actress Jameela Jamil, but this preoccupation also exposes his album’s hollowness. Blake is still an unsympathetic protagonist (albeit a slightly happier one), and here his narratives are mired in his own perspectives, leaving him oblivious to their cloying neediness. An insistence on following his girlfriend across the coastal United States is uncomfortable, while a request to just drive for a while together, babe, will make some listeners wince. With Assume Form, Blake really makes it clear that he’s kind of an overwhelming hang. Even still, the control of texture and dynamics here remains sharp, if streamlined. Muted drums pitter-patter across “Into the Red” while Blake, multi-tracked and auto-tuned, harmonizes with himself; and penultimate track “Don’t Miss It” is a torch song of “Retrograde” caliber, building methodically to a self-effacing and reflective climax. The album’s fulcrum, “Are You in Love?,” features Blake’s subtlest arrangement: a rippling synth patch ascending above church organs and twinning with Blake’s upper register. Yet the picture within this handsome frame depicts Blake pleading with his partner to play-act love, adding that he’ll lead the way. File under ‘your mileage may vary,’ then, depending on one’s tolerance for immaturity and insinuation. Far from the sheepish ‘you up?’ glamor shot on its cover, Assume Form’s grandiose declarativeness instead calls to mind a poncho-clad Blake standing in the rain, Zack Braff-style, grinning, shouting, arms outstretched.