On Friends That Break Your Heart, pop pioneer James Blake adopts a back-to-basics approach which proves an effective balm to the self-conscious pruning of 2019’s Assume Form- a star studded but slightly misjudged bid for the mainstream. Owen White sings the praises of the songwriter's latest record.
Since his debut, which saw him drawing a line between the experimental fringe of England’s burgeoning 2010’s underground electronic scene and the increasingly artsy, insular and strange R&B being produced across the pond. Before using said line as a fuse to immolate the boundaries between the two, Blake has found himself in a truly odd rut.
Unable to reproduce the industry buzz of the debut or truly break the charts he’s spent the intervening decade churning out adequate and at times truly lovely collections of delicate electro-pop and festival-friendly electronics to diminishing returns all while being lapped creatively and commercially by many of the artists he helped inspire. Here for the first time since the debut Blake sounds comfortable in his role as cult hero, unconcerned with recapturing lost valour or artistically out manoeuvring his contemporaries, instead focusing his energy on producing a strong, engaging set of songs with his trademark sonic palate and singular vision. Truly ironic for an album that engages so intensively with the theme of insecurity.
"Blake’s unparalleled voice, gut-wrenching lyrics and incredible song-writing run the gambit between explosive and subtle so effectively it blurs the distinction"
Opener Famous Last Words is the ideal tone setter, positioning itself firmly within Blake’s wheelhouse of gorgeous evocative balladeering with meticulously detailed, achingly beautiful production (a formula the album rarely strays from, to its great benefit). On Life Is Not The Same Blake takes the formula of many of the tracks off Assume Form and perfects it, capitalising on the trend of passionate trap balladeering he helped pioneer to great effect. It even features a song-writing and vocal credit from Joji, one of Blake’s more obvious and ubiquitous musical disciples over the last decade in a lovely moment of career circularity. These songs, like many of the other highlights here succeed on the strength of Blake’s unparalleled voice, gut-wrenching lyrics and incredible song-writing which runs the gambit between explosive and subtle so effectively it blurs the distinction.
The albums biggest creative detour comes in the form of the Frozen, featuring JID and SwaVay, a song of such beguiling weirdness and boundary-obliterating stylistic synthesis it feels like a new genre unto itself- ambient trap anyone? A genius combination of fluttering electronics, disorienting vocal chopping and two of the strangest verses of the year from two of HipHop's most vibrant young voices. It’s an exciting new benchmark in Blake’s production career and indicative of thrilling new horizons for genre-bending in the 2020’s. The only other songs that attempt something even half as weird are the beguiling Show Me featuring Monica Martin, whose swirling nebulas of glittering vocal harmonies remind us few people can do what Blake does with the human voice, and the dull and lightly irritating I’m So Blessed Your Mine, a severely diluted version of Frozen’s genre warping which centres a rather grating vocal sample.
Friends That Break Your Heart is the finest James Blake record since his self-titled, and a wonderful and mature album in its own right. By honing his talents and concentrating on his strengths across a focused and thematically consistent track list he’s once again proven himself to be one of the most emotionally devastating musicians on the planet. Capable of rending the most epic of tragedies and microscopic of heartbreaks in ornate, crystalline sonic perfection. The album deals with heartbreak in a genuinely effecting and unique way by not solely relegating itself to the realm of romantic love, but also exploring the untapped lyrical waters of platonic friendship, along with all the emotional desolation those bonds and their breakages can entail. If you’re looking for a record to feel sad and cool to this year, or just a fantastic pop album generally, then this might be the project for you.
Written by: Owen White