James Blake Assume Form

[Republic/Polydor; 2019]

Styles: “our part is not knowing, but looking, and touching, and loving, which is the way I walked on, softly, through the pale-pink morning light.”
Others: Moses Sumney, Bon Iver, Bruce Hornsby

“Doesn’t it get much clearer?”
A love affair leaps and melts, clinging like licks on lips, and then curt like closed mouths. Its genesis is obliteration. Its absence, whether liberating or apocalyptic, still transforms us. Its history is written in the artifacts its apostles leave behind.

“Doesn’t it seem connected?”
If you could hold it in your hands, would you keep it? Where would be safe enough? A locked drawer in a living room desk? A shed in the corner of your parents’ yard in Jersey? Would you bury it in the ground?

The trick is that you can’t hold it in your hands, can’t raise it up to your eyes and scrutinize it rationally, reasonably. All you have is hot choler and kisses, moments of oversaturated sensations. It’s hard to nail down. Why would you want to nail it down? How dare you assume form.

“Doesn’t it get you started?”
Assume Form, the fourth album from James Blake, cradles it in baubles and coos, honeys and hums. The love affair is the hearth that forms the center. Relation to another informs every inch of falsetto, every air’s intake and proclamation of devotion. It even starts with a thesis: “I will assume form/ I’ll leave the ether.”

The ether will always be there, and we’ll always be in it, and Assume Form promises formation and corporeality in spite/light of it. Even amid the title track’s spinning clicks of samples and disembodied piano lines, this is James Blake’s art of location and echoes attached to attachment: “I hope this is the first day/ That I connect motion to feeling.” Between location and our relation to it is whether we feel settled or restless. Blake sees the shadow inherent in the waiting and the wanting (“It feels like a thousand pounds of weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin”) and also the irises of his beloved and commits to singing joy. It’s frequently exhilarating. At its end, it renders the fat of want as hot fire, not for combustion but for simple warmth; a thigh’s rest on a thigh, the smooth scrape of a fingerprint across a cheek. In the sweet rock of “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” you swear you could chew it and form yourself anew in its glow. If you told me it was Blake’s most stunning composition, would I dare arguing you?

“Doesn’t it make you happier?”
Between “Assume Form” and “Lullaby For My Insomniac” is the arc itself, the doubling and redoubling down on a mode of production that sets Assume Form apart from its predecessors, not always in a good way. “Mile High” and “Tell Them” are songs Blake might have produced for a collaborator (Travis Scott and Moses Sumney, maybe). They’re joyful and catchy. I hum “Tell Them” when I walk my dog in the snow and Metro Boomin’s leery traps ease into something a body would lob against leaving the bedcovers: “Heart, tell ‘em what you came for.” It’s catching but it’s distracted, or at least purposefully buried in conjuring accessibility. “Barefoot in the Park” is more conversation heart, chalky and sweet. It melds Rosalía’s just-so alto and Blake’s always, always affecting croon and sometimes I don’t notice where it ends and “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” starts. Assume Form, at its center, feels like genre gloop spread over toast: good but too-easily digested. Sometimes it cloys. Sometimes it gets you through the day.

“Doesn’t it feel more natural?”
Suffering is no excuse for artistry, just as joy is not exempt from motivating Great Art. And why do you want Great Art? Sometimes it’s enough to hum it in snow squalls, to bop to it waving at other traffic-bound cars on the BQE. Like André says: “Hey, alright, now this may be a little bit heady/ And, y’know, I hate heady-ass verses,” like Blake says: “I’ll be out of my head this time.” But Blake’s art has always thrived on dislocation, on bridging tension and consonance. It was there in the glitch of the early EPs and the chittering self-titled swerves and the annihilated tangles of Overgrown and the expansive expressionism of The Colour in Anything. It sometimes gets abandoned on Assume Form, which, to its detriment, sometimes assumes cohesion as an end to form, rather than tension as a pathway to feeling.

Because Assume Form follows the one-off release, “If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead.” That song, a paranoiac slab of manipulated voice and doubting re-starts didn’t investigate a joy’s origin so much as it converted despair into a setting for transformation. It raised hackles (“If the car beside you moves ahead”) and stared down the ether (“As much as it feels as though you’re dead”), and it begged the voices to realize, trans-form, that they would survive: “You’re not going backwards.” If you told me it was Blake’s most stunning composition, would I dare arguing you?

“Doesn’t it seem much warmer just knowing the sun will be out?”
How dare we assume form, every day. If we could know it, would we be believe it? Form dictates that James Blake is either the barely-soul piano ballad or the future-noise post-dub chopping. But the trick is we can’t hold that in our hands without reducing the sublime to something low and clickable. How dare we let form impede the observations of a radio voice reporting our surfaces back to us. Assume Form drifts into heady consonance sometimes, yes, too easily discards dissonance, yes, but as soon as you say that, you remember the dark bats of doubt haunting the corners of “Are You in Love?” And before settling near the warmth of want on the record’s final track, “I Could Miss It”: I could avoid real-time and I could ignore my busy mind and I could avoid contact with eyes and I could avoid going outside and I could avoid wasting my life and I could avoid and I could avoid 20/20 sight and I could avoid standing in line and I could avoid the 405 and I could avoid coming to life and I could say anything I like and I could switch off whenever I like and I could sleep whenever I like and I could leave in the middle of the night.

“But I’d miss it.” The form and the words are James Blake, but the feelings are mine, what I wake up to and bid adieu to every morning and night. Assume form and don’t and discard it and don’t and, please, sing of love affairs. We’re not going backwards.

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