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‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ by James Blake Review: Risking Fame by Re-Embracing Innovation


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The singer and producer’s new album strikes a balance between sonic transformation and his trademark balladry.

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James Blake performing in 2019

Singer and producer James Blake—born and raised in greater London and now a resident of Los Angeles—arrived on the scene at an exciting time for electronic music in the U.K. Now age 33, he released his first single in 2009 and was instantly among the most promising producers working in the realm of what was sometimes called post-dubstep, alongside others such as Untold and Mount Kimbie. In that moment, several overlapping genres—tricky rhythms from U.K. garage; warped processing from experimental computer music; space and expressivity from American R&B—came together for artists like the xx, Sbtrkt and Mr. Blake, and they spun them into songs that sounded electrifying and new. 

Understanding the allure of this period is crucial for understanding Mr. Blake’s work since, because he quickly moved beyond the confines of that scene. His 2011 self-titled debut was a showcase for his singing voice, and over his next few records he became known for his slow and soft ballads. But while he’s achieved mainstream success—he’s been nominated for five Grammys and won one, for his work with rappers Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar and Future on “King’s Dead” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack—in interviews he seemed all too aware and self-conscious about trading cult adoration for pop stardom. “Assume Form,” a collection of love songs released in 2019, found him far at the pop end of this continuum and was his weakest release to date. His fifth LP, “Friends That Break Your Heart” (Republic/Polydor), out Friday, strikes a better balance between conventional songwriting and sonic innovation. 

The trademarks of Mr. Blake’s productions are deep bass, lyrical piano lines and surprising vocal manipulations, all of which adds up to forceful propulsive energy combined with delicacy and beauty. “Famous Last Words” begins the album with these elements intact—it’s a pretty song about not being able to let go of something you know is hurting you, and the arrangement does a great deal with very little, using silence to build and release tension. “I can’t believe I’m still making excuses for your crimes,” he sings. “I’ve truly lost it / This time.”

Mr. Blake’s music invites images of solitude and loneliness, but he’s an able collaborator—outside of his own records, he’s worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, among others. Three numbers here have outside vocalists, and in each case they serve as a welcome contrast to his usual approach. The best of these is “Coming Back” with R&B singer SZA. Her voice is earthy and her phrasing is matter-of-fact, pretty much the opposite of her counterpart’s, and they complement each other perfectly. “Frozen,” featuring rappers JID and SwaVay, was originally written for inclusion on the former’s album, and Mr. Blake seems like a guest on his own track, as his Auto-Tuned lyrics about being paralyzed by indecision frame the fleet rhymes from his collaborators. And on “Show Me,” which has a gorgeous pitch-shifted vocal for a hook, Mr. Blake appears in a sweet duet with up-and-coming singer Monica Martin.

Here and there, Mr. Blake’s overpowering preciousness snuffs out his virtues. Sometimes his fluttery trills, when combined with lyrics extolling his own sensitivity and emotionalism, are just too much. On “Funeral,” he sings, “I hold my ear to a shell / I hear something that no one can sell” on a crawling ballad with a tune that barely registers, while “Foot Forward,” which repeats the “I put my best foot forward” chorus to the point of irritation, never rises above cliché.

But these miscues are an exception. The record’s remarkable closing stretch finds Mr. Blake in a boldly expressive and adventurous zone. “Say What You Will” has the sturdy construction of a pop standard, with a steadily building chord structure that evokes classics like “My Way,” “Unchained Melody” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s Mr. Blake’s most explicit nod to his doubters—“I’ve been popular / With all the popular guys / I gave them punchlines / They gave me warning signs,” he sings—and the Escher-like circular melody ultimately leads him to a stirring falsetto climax designed to wave them away. 

The following “Lost Angel Nights” opens with a haunting vocal sample and a church-like organ and then delivers what might be the strongest chorus on the album, as he grapples with a relationship that dissolved over jealousy (“Lost angel nights / Never jaded eyes / Envy is no crime / Away from me’s just fine”). And the dynamic closer, “If I’m Insecure,” is one of Mr. Blake’s finest productions. A trembling keyboard line in the opening moments gives way to a drone and distant percussion, offering a beautiful payoff to the harmonic uncertainty established early on. If not for a few shaky lyrics, “Insecure” would be a masterpiece. Still, it’s an excellent showcase of Mr. Blake’s gifts, which on the evidence here remain intact a dozen years into his winding career.

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