“Friends That Break Your Heart” by James Blake Review: risking glory by reviving innovation

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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 UK. Now 33, he released his first single in 2009 and was instantly among the most promising producers working in the field of what was sometimes called post-dubstep, alongside others like Untold and Mount Kimbie. . At that point, several genres overlapped: delicate beats from the British garage; distorted processing from experimental computer music; the space and expressiveness of American R&B came together for artists like the xx, Sbtrkt and Mr. Blake, and they turned them into songs that sounded electrifying and new.

Understanding the allure of this period is crucial to understanding Mr. Blake’s work since, as he quickly overstepped the boundaries of this scene. His eponymous debut in 2011 was a showcase for his singing voice, and over the course of his next records he became known for his slow, smooth ballads. But while he’s seen 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” soundtrack. Panther “- in interviews, he seemed too self-aware and self-aware to trade cult worship for pop celebrity. “Assume Form,” a collection of love songs released in 2019, found it far at the pop end of that continuum and was its weakest release to date. His fifth LP, “Friends That Break Your Heart” (Republic / Polydor), released Friday, strikes a better balance between conventional writing and sonic innovation.

The hallmarks of Mr. Blake’s productions are deep bass, lyrical piano lines and surprising vocal manipulations, which add to a powerful propulsive energy combined with delicacy and beauty. “Famous Last Words” starts the album with those elements intact – it’s a lovely song about not being able to let go of something you know hurts you, and the arrangement does a lot with very little, using silence to create and release tension. “I can’t believe I’m still looking for excuses for your crimes,” he sings. “I really lost it / This time.”

Mr. Blake’s music invites images of loneliness and loneliness, but he’s a competent collaborator – aside from his own records, he’s worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Frank Ocean, among others. Three numbers here have outside singers, and in each case they contrast well with his usual approach. Best of all is “Coming Back” with R&B singer SZA. His voice is earthy and his phrasing is practical, roughly the opposite of that of his counterpart, and they complement each other perfectly. “Frozen,” starring rappers JID and SwaVay, was originally written to be included on the debut album, and Mr. Blake appears to be a guest on his own track, as his Auto-Tuned lyrics on the act be paralyzed by indecision frame the rhymes of fleet of its collaborators. And on “Show Me,” which has a beautifully quirky voice for a hook, Mr. Blake appears in a sweet duet with rising singer Monica Martin.

Here and there, the irresistible preciousness of Mr. Blake stifles his virtues. Sometimes her floating trills, combined with lyrics touting her own sensitivity and emotivity, are just too much. On “Funeral,” he sings, “I hold my ear to a seashell / I hear something that no one can sell” to a creepy ballad with a tune that barely registers, while “Foot Forward “, Which repeats the” I put my best foot forward “refrain to the point of irritating, never rises above the cliché.

But these errors are an exception. The record’s remarkable home stretch finds Mr. Blake in a boldly expressive and adventurous area. “Say What You Will” has the robust construction of a pop standard, with an ever-evolving chord structure that evokes classics like “My Way”, “Unchained Melody” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. This is Mr. Blake’s most explicit nod to his skeptics – “I was popular / With all the popular guys / I gave them punchlines / They gave me warning signs”, he sings – and the circular Escher-like melody eventually leads him to a touching climax designed to keep them away.

The following “Lost Angel Nights” opens with a haunting vocal sample and a church-like organ, then delivers what might be the album’s strongest chorus, as it grapples with a relationship that dissolved because of jealousy (“Lost angel nights / Never bladed eyes / Envy is not a crime / Far from me, it’s okay”). And the closest dynamic, “If I’m Insecure Is one of Mr. Blake’s best productions. A quivering keyboard line in the first few moments gives way to a drone and distant percussion, offering a nice reward to the harmonic uncertainty established from the start. trembling lyrics, “Insecure” would be a masterpiece. Yet it is an excellent showcase of Mr. Blake’s gifts, which the evidence here shows remains intact a dozen years after the start of his curvy career. .

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