“I was normal / ostracized,” sings James Blake on “Say What You Will,” the lead single from his fifth album. Friends who break your heart… After years of naming “sad boy” – taunted his music’s penchant for melancholy, and then praised him for calling this “problem” label and talking openly about mental health – a London-based producer from Los Angeles says he is comfortable in his own skin. So comfortable that he encourages his tormentors to voice their opinion: “So say what you want,” he sings, “Come on, you’ll do it anyway.”
Blake’s voice is flat on “Say What You Will,” with a touch of croak that makes his lower range so charming and distinctive. The message of the song – to be content with yourself and not be interested in criticizing others – is deep, but the music around it is boring, Blake’s subtle synthesizer work is just a backing track ticking in the background.
Subtlety has long been Blake’s forte: in the piano post-dubstep ballads of his self-titled 2011 debut album, these were understated shifts in harmony and meticulous attention to detail – on the sound of every single keyboard riff, every vocal effect – that gave his songs a touching quality. This impressive flexibility was also characteristic of his second recording, Overgrown (2013), winner of the Mercury Prize, and its third, Color in everything (2016), despite the fact that he became more commercially successful, and collaborations with artists such as Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Bon Iver and Kendrick Lamar increased.
On these recordings, Blake’s electronic work was sensitive, dexterous and often surprising: listen to his vocals on “My Wishing Heart”that start out as an electrified chirp and then turn into chanting, or the roll-call of a keyboard counter-melody on “Life is here”… But when Blake switched to a more upbeat hip-hop and R&B sound for his fourth record Take shape (2019), he deviated from unpredictability and has remained in this uncertain place ever since. Although his campaign began with a daring, direct message in the form of “Say what you want”, Friends who break your heart Blake’s safest record so far.
Blake’s newfound self-confidence is reflected throughout the recording. “I can only be who I am,” he sings in a harsh falsetto in the ballad “Life Is Not the Same,” which calls into question the end of a relationship. It’s neatly pieced together – the drum track pauses for the most intimate moments, and the electronics create the atmosphere – but the song overall is weak and just drifts. “Show Me”, a duet with Monica Martin (formerly of indie pop group PHOX) is another notable weak link. The song is very subtle, the vocals simulate emotion, with annoying, parrot-like “oohs,” and the track as a whole is based on obvious structural patterns. Both of these songs have the same basic ingredients as some of Blake’s finest work – he remains a gifted melody writer – but the detail and harmonic touches that used to make his music so exhilarating have been lost.
So it’s a nice surprise when he’s chasing a melody just, it seems, because it’s a great melody. “Foot Forward”, which, like many other tracks on the album, is dedicated to Blake’s girlfriend, actor and TV presenter Jamila Jamil, with additional producers, is only two and a half minutes long. The central theme is a rotating piano tune, over which Blake sings about a failed relationship again, calming the interlocutor as well as himself: “It’s okay / Nothing to explain / Just yesterday / You weren’t so sad.” The unusually lively tempo of the track lends it an exciting buoyancy, especially since such liveliness is hard to find anywhere else on the record.
Other glimpses of something exciting are evident in the unusual vocal riffs in “Coming Back,” featuring American singer SZA, and in the electronic heyday of “Lost Angel Nights,” the intro of which sounds like a deep cut from the video. soundtrack for the game. But these moments are just moments – lasting seconds before they disappear. Where Blake used to let them linger, he now quickly returns to safe mode. Three-quarters of the album concludes with “If I’m Insecure”, a distinctive synth that’s both percussion and siren-like that cuts through the melody line. It kicks up the track, so you forget how insipid the song was without it, until the synth fades away and you’re left with Blake’s handwritten lyrics and familiar drum machine beats. “And if I’m unsure / How I was so sure / That I’ll take care of you / Until I’m no more,” he sings, his penchant for self-doubt is still in the air.
James Blake’s “Friends Who Break Your Heart” will be released October 8 via Polydor Records.