For years, all I wanted was for James Blake’s brother and sister to talk to him again. It’s a line from the track “I Never Learnt to Share” off of his self-titled debut record, where Blake stated “my brother and my sister don’t speak to me, But I don’t blame them” ad nauseam. Despite the Justin Vernon-like vocal stacking, it solidified Blake’s sound, dark lyrical undertones, and apparently, humor. Today I learned that he was an only child.
His music was filled with such dread and loneliness that it was hard to see how any of it could be wry, let alone hold hope, but the sheer weight his albums held, like chained-cinderblocks dragging us down into the water, left me more concerned for the morose singer than it lent me to being able to enjoy his songs.
Following a pretty negative-leaning Pitchfork review, Blake took to social media and expressed his dissatisfaction with his classification as a “sad boy” just for talking about his feelings. “We are already in an epidemic of male depression and suicide,” he wrote, “we don’t need any further proof that we have hurt men with our questioning of their need to be vulnerable and open.” “The road to mental health and happiness,” he concluded, “is paved with honesty.”
For how depressing the music might have been, it was never questioned that Blake’s mental anguish wasn’t honest, it was just hard to connect with someone that seemed so far down the rabbit hole. With Assume Form, Blake seems ready to bridge that gap, and with lines such as “I thought I might be better dead, but I was wrong” from “Power On,” maybe even a more hopeful James Blake in the process.
“It feels good now to just be able to tell people how I feel,” Blake told DAZED after explaining that his anxiety and fear kept him from being able to fully express how he felt to his audience, and to himself:
“I think it’s because I met my girlfriend (The Good Place actor and TV presenter Jameela Jamil), and there was no room for pretense. She speaks her mind. It was like, ‘Tell me how you feel. Tell me what you’re thinking.’ In my everyday life, I wasn’t being encouraged to sit behind metaphor or sit behind long silences or be in a mood without explaining what it’s about.”
“Now I’m confiding,” he begins Assume Form, “I hope this is the first day, that I connect motion to feeling.” No longer trapped in the haze of his depression, Blake’s struggles with mental health took a huge leap forward when he expressed his dissatisfaction with how his music was being interpreted, and from there he took control of his own narrative.
With help from Travis Scott and Metro Boomin, two of hip-hop’s most prolific artists, the like-minded Moses Sumney, the Spanish-singing sensation ROSALIA, and the legendary André 3000, the gang comes together to support Blake as he pieces together the feelings of gratitude and fear mixed together when falling in love.
As much as Assume Form acts as a love-letter to Jamil for helping him “learn to stand up for himself” and “stop being a ghost in a shell,” as he told Groove, it’s also very much a kind of rebirth for Blake as he takes a momentary victory lap on “Mile High,” or even dazed in a river of bliss on back-to-back tracks “Barefoot in the Park” and “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow.” The distant singer now feels reachable on Assume Form, as the haze takes shape, and the submerged comes up for air.
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