“It feels like a thousand pounds of weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin.”
The line, sandwiched between lurking bass keys and pretty piano arpeggios, is sampled from Rage Almighty’s poem Depression in Assume Form the opening and title track. Just 75 seconds into the album, it’s a watershed moment for James Blake very early on: it’s an uncharacteristically open revelation, in lyric form, of a battle with depression.
It makes some sense that Blake allowed a sample to do the talking for him; he has, after all, hid behind irresolute lyrical abstraction for much of his career. His story is one of ambiguity, where schisms between formidable highs and murky, sketchbook lows (also, between Blake the dubstep producer and the stripped-back soul singer) have come together more and more in a stunning melodrama.
Though Blake had become accustomed to brushing his demons under the carpet of an exhilaratingly textured sound, recent admissions of mental struggles while touring in his twenties shed some light on the cryptic solitude of his self-titled debut, or to the drawn-out emotional turmoil of ‘The Colour in Anything’. Yet if ‘The Colour’ concluded with a hunch that putting the past to bed is crucial for one’s healing, ‘Assume Form’ is that very healing in practice. Previous projects gained renown for their amorphous peaks and troughs, but this album’s guilt-free emotional unloading tentatively tows the line between the two.
Transformed by love, Blake purveys an unrelenting clear-headedness on ‘Assume Form.’ The title track, more emotive than most of what succeeds it, sets a remarkably conclusive tone for an opener. The self-deprecation of “Ashamed lover, when you touch me I wonder what you would want with me” is swept away by the exalting chorus; likewise, the challenges of vulnerability felt from a one-night stand (Tell Them) or the sense of disbelief in one’s own happiness (Where’s the Catch) are always promptly followed up throughout the album by an unyielding peace.
At no point in the album can this newly headstrong yet accepting protagonist be better characterised than by Don’t Miss It, where a scattered point-of-view anxiety evolves into a classy but subdued embrace of the beautiful mundane. An immersive, parabolic and hauntingly honest cut, Blake picks himself up and dusts himself down over increasingly momentous piano prods, so that minor victories (“When you stop being a ghost in a shell/And everybody keeps saying you look well”) feel like hard-fought battles by the end.
Yet aside from the Odyssean bookends of the title track and Don’t Miss It, such a sense of merit remains lacking throughout. The entirety of Blake’s straightforward enjoyment of life clearly isn’t profound enough to fill out 12 tracks, and he begins to mistake lyrical candidness for depth as a result. For every engaging insight we’re given into Blake’s life there’s a forgettably pretty I’ll Come Too or a Power On, where we’re made third wheel on routine conversational addresses to his girlfriend.
Such fine lines between conceit and merriment on ‘Assume Form’ are further epitomised by the way trap drums shoehorn their way onto every track. While the rap game has spent the last two years making use of Blake’s sleek vocals, ‘Assume Form’ has returned the favour with a similarly avid embrace of pop’s zeitgeist sound. That Blake sounds like a feature on the celebrity soirées of Mile High and Tell Them is not even what jars most: rather, it’s how the sound spills over to would-be quintessential James Blake cuts like Into the Red, Are You in Love? or even I’ll Come Too, on which any chance of his usually patient texturing is forced to awkwardly co-exist with ostentatious claps or hurried tempos.
Though ‘Assume Form’ is a disappointingly prudent album, in Barefoot in the Park lies a glimpse at an engaging new sound. Of the handful of cuts on here that aren’t half-baked adjustments to trap-pop, this one is least of all a relapse to the Blake of old. The drums, restrained to vapid knocks and taps, give way to a dense, dreamlike palette of vacillating harps and vocal lulls (incidentally a sample from an Irish folk song). Rosalía’s raspy innocence is an unlikely floral compliment to Blake’s tenor; her apical soprano is the final flourish to a flawless arrangement where all individual parts shine in parallels. It’s stunning.
In fact, it’s on Barefoot in the Park where the album’s mantra is laid bare: “Who needs balance, I’ll see you every day.” No longer a martyr to striking the right chord with his suffering, Blake has chosen just to live. That mentality is the very reason why there’s little meaning below surface level on ‘Assume Form’, and why there are no grandiose ballads destined for the credits of your favourite Nordic detective show.
Instead of icy winter music, ‘Assume Form’ could be the backdrop to a leisurely Sunday between the sheets. And that’s fine: that Blake can demonstrate a distress-free existence beyond depression is important and commendable. But to explore the depths of such a message on a scale anywhere near as interesting as on previous projects, Blake should probably leave the pop limbo in which he currently finds himself.