“I’ve been normal/I’ve been ostracised”, sings James Blake on “Say What You Will”, the lead single from his fifth album, Friends That Break Your Heart. After years of being called a “sad boy” – of being mocked for his music’s tendency towards melancholia, and then praised for calling out this “problematic” label and speaking openly about mental ill health – the London-born, LA-based producer is declaring that he is comfortable in his own skin. So comfortable, in fact, that he’s encouraging his tormentors to speak their mind: “So say what you will,” he sings, “Go on/You’re gonna do it anyway.”
Blake’s voice is steady on “Say What You Will”, and tinged with the slight croak that makes his lower range so charming and distinctive. The song’s message – of being content with oneself, and disinterested in the criticism of others – is profound, but the music around it is uninspiring, Blake’s subtle synth work merely a backing track ticking away in the background.
Subtlety has long been Blake’s strong point: on the piano-led post-dubstep ballads of his eponymous 2011 debut album, it was the understated shifts in harmony and finely tuned attention to detail – on the sound of every individual keyboard riff, every vocal effect – that brought a moving quality to his songs. This impressive suppleness was also a feature of his second record, Overgrown (2013), which won the Mercury Prize, and of his third, The Colour in Anything (2016), even as he became more commercially successful, and collaborations with artists such as Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Kendrick Lamar became more frequent.
On these records, Blake’s electronic work was sensitive, deft and often surprising: listen to his vocals on “My Willing Heart”, which start as an electrified chirp and then become a croon, or to the warp and weft of the keyboard counter-melody on “Life Round Here”. But as Blake veered towards more upbeat hip hop and R&B sounds for his fourth record Assume Form (2019), he strayed from unpredictability, and since then has remained in this vague spot. Though its campaign started with an audacious, direct message in the form of “Say What You Will”, Friends That Break Your Heart is Blake’s safest record yet.
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Blake’s newfound self-confidence reverberates throughout the record. “I can only be what I am,” he sings, in a crisp falsetto, on “Life Is Not the Same”, a ballad that questions the end of a relationship. It’s pieced together gently – a drum track pauses for the most intimate moments, and the electronics offer atmosphere – but the song as a whole is feeble, and simply drifts. “Show Me”, a duet with Monica Martin (formerly of the indie-pop group PHOX) is another notable weak link. The song is twee, the vocal parts feigning emotion, with irritating, parrot-like “oohs”, and the track as a whole is reliant on obvious structural patterns. Both of these songs have the same core ingredients as some of Blake’s best work – he remains a gifted melody writer – but the production and harmonic touches that previously made his music so stirring have been lost.
So it’s a pleasant surprise when he does pursue a melody simply, it seems, because it’s a great tune. “Foot Forward”, which, like many of the album’s tracks, credits Blake’s girlfriend, the actor and TV presenter Jameela Jamil, with additional production credits, runs at just two-and-a-half minutes long. The central theme is a rolling piano motif, over which Blake sings again of a failed relationship, comforting the other party just as much as himself: “It’s OK/There’s nothing to explain/Only yesterday/You weren’t so sad.” The track’s unusually sprightly tempo gives it a buoyancy that feels exciting, particularly since such liveliness is hard to detect elsewhere on the record.
Other glimmers of something thrilling are evident in the off-kilter vocal riffs in “Coming Back”, featuring the US singer SZA, and in electronic flourishes on “Lost Angel Nights”, the intro for which sounds like a deep-cut from a video game soundtrack. But these moments are just moments – seconds-long, before they disappear. Where previously Blake would have let them linger, he now quickly reverts back to safe mode. Three-quarters of the way through the album closer “If I’m Insecure”, a distinctive synth that is both percussive and siren-like cuts through the melody line. It elevates the track so that you forget how bland the song was without it, until the synth peters out, and you’re left with Blake’s tame lyrics and familiar drum machine kicks. “And if I’m insecure/How have I been so sure/That I’m gonna care for you/’Til I am no more,” he sings, his propensity for self-doubt still hovering in the air.
“Friends That Break Your Heart” by James Blake is released on Polydor Records on 8 October
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