The most immediate confontation presented by Assume Form is its cover. A visual callback to James Blake's Klavierwerke EP (and later his self-titled LP). Back then, blurs and smears smothered a monochromatic portrait. Here, Blake looks us dead-on, in full colour, undistorted. The image is arresting in its normality. This is the artist living by his words; assuming form.
In some sense the music reflects this. The twelve tracks on this record represent a broader bid for mainsteam appeal than yet seen. The whispiness and weirdness of Blake's early career is shrugged off. This comes as no surprise -- Blake's artistic trajectory has been unidirectional. A slow abandonment of the minimal and mysterious. A greater emphasis on catchy vocal hooks, beats and basslines. But what is pleasantly surprising is Blake's forthright and candid lyricism. The mask has been shed and Blake bravely exposes himself. His strength as a lyricist buoys material which from other mouths may have clanged.
Assume Form is a more successful attempt at a mainstream style than 2016's insipid The Colour in Anything -- but it still lacks power. What's more, the same issue plagues Assume Form as its predecessor. Namely, a few memorable tracks have the burden of propping up some forgettable duds. The difference is that Blake has shaved thirty minutes. But this leads to a worrisome question. Is the greatest strength of Assume Form that it doesn't outstay its welcome?
Tracks like 'Into the Red' and 'Where's the Catch?' cast these worries aside. A blinding André 3000 feature injects much-needed joie de vivre. Some material is the strongest Blake has produced since 2011. And the album is as beautifully-produced as you’d expect. But newcomers will likely be underwhelmed. And as ever, fans are left craving greater consistency and experimentation. Until Blake delivers this, Assume Form will have to do.
Curious newcomers should seek out James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP, Enough Thunder, and self-titled LP. Assume Form available for streaming and purchase here.
Words by Andrew O’Keefe