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6 February 2019

James Blake finds new joy on his third record, Assume Form

Plus: a new solo record from Ian Brown.

By Kate Mossman

A year or so ago, Noel and Liam Gallagher released solo albums at roughly the same time. While Noel’s was poor, Liam’s was, to some surprise, rather good – until it was pointed out, by Noel, that the producer Greg Kurstin had co-written many of the songs. Kurstin is one of those producers who enters the skin of his charges and is able to predict the kind of chord changes and melodies they themselves would have been known for in their former heights; even McCartney hired him in 2017. This way, the creative life of rock stars is unnaturally extended and no one will ever hear, or know, what they’d really come out with if left to their own devices for a year on a bean bag, with a cup of tea and limited inspiration. With the exception of Ian Brown.

No new album emerged from the Stone Roses reunion tour of 2012-13. So, Brown has done one himself, without any outside influence, or co-writers, or producers, or any other instrumentalists at all – apart from his sons, who share with him guitars, drums, a rather persistent bass, bongos and a cabasa (one of those shakers that looks a little bit like a duct tape dispenser, with metal chains wrapped around it).

From the opening track, “First World Problems”, which takes the riff from “Sympathy for the Devil” and makes it fun and squelchy, you are in a highly distinct world: airless, thick with reefer, slightly obsessive and strangely sincere. An outside producer might have advised Brown that after writing the first verse – “Messing up your mind with the daily grind/Gotta leave it all behind/Driving everybody crazy” – he could follow it with another verse. But he just repeats the first verse three times instead, which is bold for the opening track on your album. It is six minutes long.

Brown is steeped in the nasal rhyme schemes of the era his groundbreaking band gave rise to: it’s all shine, mind, behind, lazy and crazy. But it’s fun to see where his imagination takes him. He goes a bit George Harrison on a track called “Breathe and Breathe Easy (The Everness of Now)”, ululating: “I’m like a lion/Never lose no sleep/Over the thoughts and opinions/Of the brainwashed sheep.” There are “angel trumpets and devil trombones”; he holds “a palm tree in the palm of [his] hand”. In “The Dream and the Dreamer” he remarks: “What’s normal for the spider/Is chaos for the fly.” On this song, a moody little bassline and funk guitar-riff repeat for 16 bars, before another, fartier guitar sound is added to the loop. He sounds like he’s having fun, on his own – it’s just a shame there aren’t some more instruments playing in his songs.

If you want to know where Brown stands with his former band, “From Chaos and Harmony” could contain the clue: “Dried up roses all turn to stone/Too much poison to ramble on/Thinking for myself with my own brain.” And that’s what Ripples is, really: a glimpse into Brown’s own brain. The most political track appears to be a protest against air traffic, “Blue Sky Day”, where he sings of jet planes making chemtrails in the air. He is flat on his back in the park, to my mind, staring up into the beyond. Every famous rock star should be denied a producer after a certain point in their careers, to see what they come up with by themselves.

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When James Blake won the Mercury award for his second album, I was cross, because I felt that his sound – ghostly, glitched-up, gospel-tinged soul and dubstep – while unique and influential, was not developing enough to merit it. He collaborates with Beyoncé and Frank Ocean; he can be heard in Drake and FKA Twigs. But his impressive, delicate work was still annoying to me, mournful and half-cut, like the songs of a lonely shepherd boy caught on the wind. Someone told me his third record “sounds like he’s getting laid”, and the photo on the cover – hands behind his head, eyes to camera, missing only a fag – supports that. On the new album, Blake really does seem to be “assuming form”, taking shape – achieving, perhaps, a new synthesis between the beauty of the music that has influenced him and his own personal expressions of joy. Hip-hop tricks and various adventures in autotune are matched with the organic tones of a string quartet and jazz piano (he studied at Goldsmiths and is the son of prog veteran James Litherland, founder of Colosseum).

His tunes have always been pretty, but frequently here they are jubilant – if tentative (an intense character who has spoken about his struggles with depression, he will probably always be tentative). It is an album of love songs, wherein the marvel seems not just to be finding another person, but finding one’s own ability to love. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” is a creamy, sun-soaked wonder. And “I’ll Come Too” is exquisite, because Blake allows himself to carry a romantic lyric, and a romantic melody, through to its conclusion, without breaking into darkness. It brings to mind those little interludes in old Disney films where the air around the lovers fills with rabbits and tweetie-pies, and everything goes hyper-real.

Contributions from producer Metro Boomin and shades of flamenco enhance the richness, while André 3000 sounds as jolly as ever on “Where’s The Catch”. But the main difference is a sense of guts, which I missed in Blake before. “If I give everything, I lose everything,” he says. Which is worth the risk if it sounds like this.

Ripples Ian Brown
Virgin EMI

Assume Form James Blake

This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe