A warm and even-keeled collection of ballads, this is James Blake’s most traditional album, but it offers little in the way of emotional insight.
James Blake’s songs were once so fragmentary, so structurally disrupted, that when he even gestured at conventional song structure, it was show-stopping. This was the trick of his early records: lulling a listener through a rush of clicks, whirrs, and sub-bass before going in for the kill with a gut punch like “Limit to Your Love” or “Meet You in the Maze.” It’s this tension that brought him renown, notably among artists like Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, pop stars seeking to invert Blake’s formula by suffusing their own music with his atmospheric touch. It has also brought its fair share of criticism from detractors who equate his dogged evocation of a single mood with monotony.
Blake’s last record, 2019’s Assume Form, was all fragments, no show-stoppers: Working with vibe-first artists like Travis Scott and Metro Boomin, and trimming back the jagged spontaneity that brought electricity to his earlier records, the album tended to get lost in itself. Its moments of ingenuity were overshadowed by monochromatic production and occasionally platitudinal lyrics that suggested a kind of self-interrogation: “I will assume form/I’ll leave the ether,” he sang on the title track, “I will be reachable.”
Friends That Break Your Heart, Blake’s follow-up, seems to apply that vow from “Assume Form.” Lighter and more straightforward, it feels like Blake’s most traditional album: a collection of ultra-linear, lyrics-first ballads that are plaintive and softly beautiful. Seemingly drawing inspiration from the folk songwriters who influence the edges of his work—the early songs of his friend and past collaborator Moses Sumney come to mind—it brings warmth and texture to music previously slicked with a cool varnish. It’s touchable, reachable, and even kind of relatable, its lyrics now doing as much emotional heavy lifting as Blake’s reedy falsetto.
Coming from Blake, a collection of songs that travel from point A to point B without detours is actually something of a departure. On the title track, he sings without vocal processing over gently-picked acoustic guitar and Mellotron whirr. The sparse arrangement makes room for a mournful vocal performance that carries none of his usual warble. As is the case for many of these songs, he’s singing about losing friends with a twinge of bitterness in every word. “As many loves that have crossed my path,” he sings, “In the end it was friends/It was friends who broke my heart.” He sounds exhausted but resigned to his fate; although there’s a simplicity to these lyrics, their directness is stark in comparison to the rest of Blake’s catalog.
The new straightforwardness, though, exposes a weakness in Blake’s lyrics: a tendency toward emotional neutrality, no matter the context. On “Friends That Break Your Heart,” he sings with the remove of hindsight; his venting in “Foot Forward,” is couched by admitting, “But it’s not that bad.” The closing “If I’m Insecure” opens on a note of uncertainty—“If this is what we always wanted, how’s the signal so weak?”—but true love saves the day in the end. Even if these are some of Blake’s prettiest, most direct songs, they offer little in the way of emotional insight.
While the lyrics lack tension, there is new warmth and levity to the music. “Coming Back,” a collaboration with SZA, opens with bright piano chords that flutter like butterfly wings; a looped piano sample on “Foot Forward,” co-produced with Metro Boomin and Frank Dukes, creates a mid-tempo groove that Blake rides playfully. His use of repetition is in service of rhythm and forward motion, not to create an atmosphere of anxiety. Over these backdrops, Blake sounds so plainly at ease that you’re inclined to take him at his word in moments like “Say What You Will,” the most arresting song here, when he writes about his growing distant from pop’s center: “I’m OK with the life of the sunflower,” he sings. “And I’m OK with the life of a meteor shower.”
These even-keeled observations mark a noted improvement on the self-seriousness of Assume Form, even if it causes the record to fade from memory in a way that his more resonant work never did. Still, this breezy quality is partially by design: “I do genuinely want to make music for people who are just sitting by the swimming pool,” he recently confessed. Even if the music remains more ambitious than that aspiration, perhaps the most groundbreaking thing about Friends That Break Your Heart is that James Blake has never sounded so safe.
Buy: Rough Trade