After the release of The Colour of Anything, one thing flowed through my mind, can James Blake be as complex and ethereal as this album? The short answer — somewhat. From Assume Form to his mini-project released last year, he has been on a steady path of consistent okay-ness. Unfortunately, it continues on his new album, Friends That Break Your Heart. It wanes between delivering with the same cadence James has brought in past work and also middling on forgettability — after some time, it sonically stays on a tangent, and you forget what just played as they begin to sound a little too similar. With co-production from Jameela Jamil and others like Take A Day Trip, Dominic Maker, and Metro Boomin, to name a few, they bring additions to the respective work, keeping James mid-way to the mantle he once sat on calmly.
Like Assume Form, Friends That Break Your Heart carries a few things in common, besides being a spiritual tonal-successor to the former. One, in particular, is the first half, which comes out strong, followed by one and a half solid songs in the second that is only okay to good. What defines the strength of the first half is James Blake’s tender vocals, as the reverbs and other modifiers create a crescendo with his different deliveries. It matches the smooth and steady production from Blake, Dominic Maker, and Jameela Jamil — who’ve also had a steady hand in the production of Assume Form. Their connected mind resonates with the stylistic choices made by Blake, but after some time, it dwindles on mediocrity.
The first half contains many highlights — some more so than others — before slowly shifting into slight mediocrity. A lot of it stems from James Blake’s directness, weaving ways to let his message linger without losing focus from the simple complexions in the production. Unfortunately, James Blake’s directness begins to wane away meaning from the big picture. He barely plays with metaphors and analogies, losing sight of making the themes have more relevance.
However, “Coming Back,” “Frozen,” and “Life Is Not The Same” demonstrates James’ capabilities of finding unique concepts outside of the simple synths, percussion, and the occasional string instrument. “Coming Back” and “Frozen” do the most with the percussion, elevating the hip-hop elements of these songs — it gives us these unique parallels with the featured artists bringing him out of his comfort zone and into something repeatable.
“Coming Back” features James Blake in a duet with SZA, creating two sides to the production, elevating their respective vocal ranges. As Blake begins with somber — dark-like synths — and slow progressions, it picks up steam as the percussion turns beautifully bombastic, comparatively. Like “Coming Back,” “Frozen” sees Blake taking a step outside his comfort zone, using distortions and a hip-hop-centric percussion to let JID and SwaVay go off on their respective verses. And It’s disappointing when SwaVay shines brighter than Blake. He is an artist who has never been on my radar, but his verse on “Frozen” packs a hard punch — he blends metaphors smoothly into his storytelling style: “Took him to JJ’s and had him turnt by the end of the day/End up hittin’ the lick for two nights and then went to the banks.”
However — In the second half — James Blake isn’t breaking new territory, like “Coming Back” — most importantly, he isn’t fully immersing himself in the music, despite trying to keep his voice centered. As it begins to break apart, two songs leave a lasting impact. “Foot Forward” and “If I’m Insecure” sees James leaping, extending the simplicity of the atmospheric textures. Though, his innate use of synths starts to drown the production as it shifts in different directions, like the melancholic sounding, “Friends That Break Your Heart.”
“Foot Forward,” co-produced by Frank Dukes and Metro Boomin, adds intricate percussion styles, leaving room for James Blake to immerse himself in the production and deliver one of his better performances. The array of percussion and piano keys plays as James Blake croons about forgetting the past and leaping forward for his mental health. The production on“Foot Forward” mirrors the percussion patterns of “Life Is Not The Same” — the best aspect of the latter. It isn’t a complete parallel, but it integrates different percussion styles until it loses focus due to Blake’s dry delivery. Like “Life Is Not The Same,” others that follow a similar style of vibrant percussion patterns bring enough to sustain your attention, and Blake fails in that regard.
But for the most part, James Blake stays thematically and tonally consistent, that he barely teeters off the path. Unfortunately, like the two songs I previously mentioned, it seems rare for him to keep me invested throughout the whole project. The lapses in mediocrity make you want to hit skip immediately. And as it breaches into the second half, more songs become just that. Friends That Break Your Heart was something I was looking forward to, and it didn’t hit the mark as it should have. But there are a few songs that do, and most of which aren’t because of James.