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On ‘Assume Form,’ James Blake Sheds the “Sad Boy” Label

Accompanied on his new album by the likes of Travis Scott and André 3000, the British singer-producer has broadened his appeal and lessened his loneliness

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In May 2018, James Blake, your favorite rapper’s favorite digital-poltergeist moper, put out “Don’t Miss It,” an eerie and startling song about paralyzing depression and how to fight it, or maybe just why to fight it.

“The world has shut me out,” he moans over a dusty, skeletal piano loop as the track begins. “If I give everything I’ll lose everything.” Certain words, like dusty and skeletal, attach themselves to Blake a lot, but it’s the skeleton of some delicate 3-D-printed apparition, and it’s the dust that billows out when you blow compressed air into a computer fan. A spectral opera singer trills an eerie melody in response—very possibly Blake’s own voice, pitch-shifted into a perilous stratosphere that feels more like rock bottom. Laptop-speaker drums kick in but take care not to disturb the peace; Blake’s voice starts stretching and clipping, as though his vocal cords are powered by spotty hotel Wi-Fi:

And as it keeps on going
I could avoid real time
I could ignore my busy mind
I could avoid contact with eyes
I could avoid going outside

The it in question that keeps on going seems to be the default James Blake mind-set: miserablist, isolationist, and unnervingly gorgeous all the same. A trio of restless 2010 EPs established the young Londoner as a cerebral dance-music tinkerer frozen in bedroom headlights; his 2011 full-length debut, James Blake, added his arresting falsetto and made him a Fader cover star, a Radiohead fan’s platonic ideal of a brooding singer-songwriter. “My brother and my sister don’t speak to me / But I don’t blame them,” crooned Blake (an only child) on a song called “I Never Learnt to Share,” sounding both prayerful and sorrowful, otherworldly and painfully human.

He covered Feist and, later, Joni Mitchell, improving on neither, of course, but capturing enough of the star-child mystique of both. He spent much of that Fader cover story at a Drake show, mesmerized to the point of immobility. He was tall and handsome and mysterious, with a British variation on what the priceless web comic Achewood once called “emotions hair.” You couldn’t take your eyes off him, even if he couldn’t bring himself to even look at you.

Two more celebrated albums and a handful of strikingly bizarre pop-star collaborations later, “Don’t Miss It,” which has now found its home deep into Blake’s new album, Assume Form, seems determined not to break the mood, not to shatter the crystalline melancholy that keeps Blake shivering in the spotlight and keeps that spotlight pointed at him. But the song ends with a hesitant turn toward something much brighter:

When you can’t believe your luck
You’re with your friend
When you get to hang out with your favorite person every day
When the dull pain goes away
Don’t miss it
When you stop being a ghost in the shell
And everybody keeps saying you look well
Don’t miss it
Like I did

It’s a hopeful song about conquering hopelessness; it’s a “Let It Be” for all those struggling mightily to let it be. And shortly after releasing it, Blake pushed back at a few other words that attach themselves to him a lot.

The words sad boy, specifically. “I’ve always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings,” he wrote. Moreover, “I’ve seen enough friends drown in this, and almost drowned in it myself because I bottled everything up, afraid of being seen as weak or soft. I now see the great strength and benefit for those around you in opening up.”

It was a rare direct and assertive statement from a guy more comfortable lurking far in the background, if not wafting in the ether. And as Blake has opened up, he’s not so much crept toward pop music’s center as watched the center creep toward him. Assume Form is not a radical change to the James Blake program, sonically or emotionally. What’s radical is the way he’s slowly and subtly bent forward-thinking rap and R&B to his will, and consequently how natural and logical and necessary the likes of Metro Boomin, Travis Scott, and André 3000 now sound on an album loaded with beautiful and dense electro-pop abstractions.

In the past few years Blake has worked with the likes of Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and Kendrick Lamar, conjuring up various ghosts to haunt various multi-million-dollar machines. He’s the guy even the superstars seek out when they want to get weird and deep and, yes, a little bit sadder, but not indulgently so. He’s always been great at pulling everybody in. But for those who need it, “Don’t Miss It” suggests he’s also getting better at pulling himself out.

Blake’s second album, 2013’s Overgrown, had a lead single, “Retrograde,” bombastic and melodramatic enough to soundtrack the trailer to the first season of The Leftovers. But the biggest revelation was “Take a Fall for Me,” costarring none other than the RZA in a particularly amorous and flowery mood as he tries to talk a lover out of marrying somebody else: “Tight as the grip of a squid / Gentle as the finger touch of a newborn kid / I wouldn’t trade her smile for a million quid.” Not just anybody can coax Bobby Digital into such a mellow mood.

Meanwhile, Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, another art-pop apparition with a luscious croon and a flair for making electro-acoustic minimalism sound like maximalism, had carved out a lucrative second career as a Kanye West whisperer (and moaner), lending his disorienting gravitas to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2013’s Yeezus. Vernon and Blake are close friends and natural stylistic allies, alluring enigmas roaming the cosmos like the silhouettes of pop stars. The Bon Iver cameo on “I Need a Forest Fire” was the highlight of Blake’s especially long and winding 2016 album The Colour in Anything, a welcome burst of hooky warmth amid all the lovely clutter. Vernon, to date, has proved a little more adept at making this sort of intense interiority sound gigantic, to the extent that Blake is interested in sounding gigantic at all.

Kanye West is a big James Blake fan; same with Frank Ocean, who worked on The Colour in Anything and brought Blake in for 2016’s Blonde. Blake has also spent some time in the studio with Chance the Rapper, though they have never been, contrary to popular belief, roommates. Too bad. Blake does his best work in the pop sphere as a disruptor: There he is dropping the jarringly lovely 90-second duet “Forward” into Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or throwing a seven-second, almost avant-garde roadblock into the thick of the Black Panther soundtrack jam “King’s Dead,” sneaking his name onto the marquee alongside Jay Rock, Future, and Kendrick Lamar. What all these boldface names see in Blake is an alien sort of elegance, a deeper shade of opulent melancholia that’s not so much expensive as unattainable, which is to say priceless.

Blake was already gently trying to subvert that image around the time The Colour in Anything came out. “He looks like a man who is perfectly comfortable out in the open, among humans,” Pitchfork marveled during a 2016 interview. His recent and more direct appeals to ax the sad-boy label entirely are borne out on Assume Form, which is indeed at its best when he’s hanging out with other ridiculously cool people. “Mile High,” costarring Metro Boomin and Travis Scott, has a stately moodiness to it, humming at a low frequency but never wallowing: “Lesson’s always there / That less is always more,” Blake sings, imparting a bit of long-held wisdom Scott is mercifully starting to wrap his head around.

Moses Sumney, whose great 2017 album Aromanticism was a psychedelic folk-R&B odyssey after Blake’s own heart, drops by for “Tell Them”; the Spanish neo-Flamenco singer Rosalía anchors “Barefoot in the Park” with a feather-light touch, both tender duets that preserve the sensuality and singularity of both voices. And later, on “Where’s the Catch?,” André 3000 winds up (“This may be a little bit heady … I hate heady-ass verses”) and delivers what is, indeed, a heady-ass verse on a love song about a love so intense it’s made him suspicious: “Harmony, harmony, how many, how many / Days of amazin’ will it be before it phases / And I say I told you so? / Summer bee, summer be buzzin’ / Some will be hovering over nothin’ / All of a sudden it’s fall and it’s over, though.”

That is a very James Blake idea: something so outlandishly beautiful it can’t also help but feel a little morose. Sad boy has never been a particularly helpful or evocative way to describe this vibe, but happily, it’s an even poorer fit as a way to describe Assume Form, where his appeal both deepens and broadens as his loneliness lessens. Blake sounds better the more famous and less famous people he’s got surrounding him, and the more rapt listeners he’s willing to reach out to. “I thought I might be better dead but I was wrong,” goes the opening lines of “Power On,” another lightly surreal love song. “I thought everything could fade but I was wrong / I thought I’d never found my place but I was wrong.” The chorus is strange and glorious and perfect: “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone.” A little social isolation is fine, but it’s better if you share it. He looks well even if you can’t see him.