There are fleeting moments of beauty on the safest and least inspired record of James Blake's career.
With his darkly rhythmic electronica and beautifully expressive baritone, James Blake pioneered a path for a new breed of singer-songwriter when he emerged in the early 2010’s as a turntable wielding Bon Iver. This was a time before Justin Vernon went and drenched his tender folk in synths and samples himself, perhaps due in part at least to Blake's influence among others you'd have to assume.
The British DJ’s sound and profile have developed significantly in the intervening years, with 2019’s Assume Form seemingly representing fully realized evolution for Blake through its singular blend of the Londoner’s songwriting and production talents as he enlisted a lucrative cast of his collaborators to produce a star studded hip-hop/R&B spectacle, but on his fifth record Blake returns mostly solo – and he sounds awfully lonely for the vast majority of Friends That Break Your Heart.
A gentle series of minimal electronica ballads that sees Blake contemplating love and relationships against a lockdown backdrop, Friends That Break Your Heart contains fleeting moments of haunting beauty when it hits right (‘Friends That Break Your Heart’, ‘Lost Angel Nights’) and a fantastic couple of collaborative bright spots (duets with SZA and Monica Martin on ‘Coming Back’ and ‘Show Me’ respectively), but all too often falls back into ponderous territory with a monotonous and basic set of instrumentals that seem to match the energy levels of Blake throughout, who cuts a weary figure from the off on underwhelming opener ‘Famous Last Words’.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Blake revisiting the more minimalist solo style he explored so fruitfully on early releases, these compositions not only omit the adventurous sonic leaps made on Assume Form, but they’re largely lacking in Overgrown’s engaging emotional hooks or the vibrant, hypnotic mixes of debut James Blake and its various EPs.
Instead, much as anyone is entitled to during the lockdown times in which it was created, Blake sound tired, isolated and vaguely uninspired – the result is the safest and least accomplished record of his career.
5.0 / D+
Best Tracks: 'Coming Back (feat. SZA)'/'Friends That Break Your Heart'
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