Last summer, at the height of the rolling heatwave and the World Cup fever which gripped the nation, James Blake was talking about his struggles with mental health.
“I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed,” he told an audience in California, alluding to the depression had dogged him for years.
It was two months after the release of 'Don't Miss It', his first single since 2016 album The Colour in Everything.
I could switch off whenever I like / I could sleep whenever I like / I could leave in the middle of the night / Oh, but I'd miss it / Don't miss it'
His autotune-warped voice sang against piano chords and a softly thudding bass-line.
While fans of Blake's signature sound - first heard on 2011 breakout song 'Limit To Your Love' - were pleased to see his return, most assumed it was a sign his next album would be something of a downer.
Today he releases that album, Assume Form, and while some tracks do indeed embody the kind of millennial ennui that Blake's music his known for, it is charged with a bright hope that elevates it beyond 'sad boy music'. 'She watched me lose face every day rather than lose me / She was the gold rush', he croons of his girlfriend, the actress Jameela Jamil.
Blake performing at the Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival at Golden Gate Park in August 2018 ; Getty Images
In the titular track the refrain of 'I will assume form' feels like him calling out to that "half-formed" version him that was taken away at a young age. The song ends with him asking 'Doesn't it seem much warmer / Just knowing the sun will be out?', a thought that sounds like it has just occurred to him.
Since his last album, Blake has featured on hugely successful projects such as Frank Ocean's Blonde and Beyoncé's Lemonade. His lists of collaborators reads like a roll-call of the world's best musicians: Kanye West, Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar and Future.
There was an expectation, given the esteem with which he is held within the music industry, that these names would be more than happy to collaborate on Assume Form. Refreshing then that instead of 12 tracks littered with stars, the album features just five carefully considered collaborators.
It is telling that Blake chose to bring in Moses Sumney on one track, the singer whose sparse 2017 album Aromanticism was compared to his own music, sensing (correctly) that together they could forge something unique.
On 'Where's The Catch' with André 3000, frenetic piano trills circle anxiously, speeding up when André starts rapping. In another song featuring Travis Scott and Metro Boomin called 'Mile High', vocals are gravelly and unhurried with a trap-feel that cuts through the languid energy that Blake's songs often feel submerged in.
There are some tracks which don't assume form. 'Lullaby for my Insomniac' feels so sparse it disintegrates into nothing. In 'Power On' Blake sings, 'Drop the pin on the mood that you're in' - a moment which feels too Instagram-ready and clumsy by his usually evocative standards.
These grumbles aside, Assume Form puts weight behind the faith that artists such as Kanye West and Frank Ocean have put in Blake him as one of the most talented musicians working today, and shows he's still interested in creating something new. Don't miss it.
From: Esquire UK