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James Blake: Building Something Out of Nothing

I was having a conversation with a good friend recently about how James Blake is the cooler, hipper version of Steven Wilson. Puzzled, he asked why, I said, as I say to you now, that they have notable similarities such as the fact that they are both well-regarded producers with talents that extend to multiple genres and styles.

Secondly, they hone in on sensitive subjects of heartbreak, loss, melancholia, regret, transience; in arresting and enveloping ways. The kind of sensitivity that wells up inside you, like your hollow body slowly filling up with fluid until a phrase or a subtle tone strikes and your watery innards come gushing out.

But, let’s forget Steven Wilson, for our main focus here is James Blake; the Mercury Prize winning singer-songwriter and heavy collaborator with a plethora of artists including Kendrick Lamar, Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, André 3000 and Travis Scott. The man gets his foot in the door everywhere he goes, and has recently come out with his 4th studio record Assume Form; an album of crisp subterranean production and the poetic flourishes of someone who is crawling in the dreamy trenches of love.

‘I will assume form, I’ll leave the ether
I will assume form, I’ll be out of my head this time
I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable
I couldn’t tell you where my head goes either’

‘Assume Form’, James Blake

Assembling as a unified whole with another person, meshing like clunky cogs, is a preoccupation for Blake on AF. It is a well-documented feeling, the feeling of incompleteness, of disassociation, or of ephemeral malaise; captured brilliantly on the title track as if this person has reached for your ectoplasmic hand and pulled you straight into their arms, like lifting your head from underwater and all sensation is suddenly tangible and clear – it is reachable.

Reachable is what Blake is striving for, because so many of us are so searingly unreachable, suffocated by wide open halls, constricted by personal space, doused in air.

‘It feels like a thousand pounds of weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin’

Depression’, Rage Almighty

The demon-esque spoken word piece in the track is sampled from Rage Almighty’s slam poem ‘Depression’, further fixating on the elusive feeling that Blake is circling. Almighty’s poem is possibly the closest a human will get to describing the state of depression, and conversely Blake’s ‘Assume Form’ is maybe the closest a human will come to describing the unbinding from this state.

With every breath Almighty takes to deliver his lines, it is as if an invisible vacuum is depriving him of usable air to speak with; leaving some of his lines tailing off in an airy splutter like his vocal cords have been hit by a bus. Alternatively, Blake – so playful in morphing the stultifying excesses of depression – juxtaposes his form accordingly in song, with the finale of ‘Assume Form’ feeling as if it could ring out for the rest of eternity like a joyous lucid dream.

For Blake love is a celebration of wayward giddiness and an opportunity to revel in the mysterious aura of another human; what are they thinking? What does that expression on their face mean? What am I in their world? And for the ‘old’ way of thinking about things? Well, as Blake puts it; don’t miss it.

‘When you stop being a ghost in a shell
And everybody keeps saying you look well
Don’t miss it
Like I did
Don’t miss it
Don’t miss it like I did
Like I did’

‘Don’t Miss It’, James Blake

Joe Astill