Album Review: Friends That Break Your Heart by James Blake
Very Good, Based on 5 Critics
Exclaim - 70 Based on rating 7/10
Few today occupy similar standing across musical spheres as James Blake. Of his ardent supporters, he can count rap phenoms, folk crooners, reggaetón hitmakers, and underground protégées all in the same breath. In the last few years, he has made it a point to dip his toes into a great variety of musical flavours, most evident on his last album Assume Form, an album featuring the likes of Rosalía and Travis Scott, among others.
It's the sound of a man plagued by self-doubt as every last stumble runs through his head. Reckoning with the person he is and the person he wants to be, all while trying not to let the cards he's been dealt break him. "I put my best foot forward / What else can I do?", he laments with a resigned acceptance on "Foot Forward". It leads to an odd feeling of hope amid the anxiety; old Blake and new Blake coalescing.
Playing a game of 'where are they now?' with dubstep producers can be rather illuminating. Skrillex has camouflaged himself amongst the American pop scene with the help of Diplo; Skream puts out high-quality tech house bangers with remarkable regularity; Benga is in early retirement due to mental health issues, while sometime Mercury Prize winner James Blake is… where, exactly? His fifth album Friends That Break Your Heart will probably go down in history as the only record to feature Metro Boomin, Rick Nowels and his partner Jameela Jamil in the credits, and the album does the best it can to tie these strands together. Whereas the Blake of yesteryear would use electronic loops to give his lyrics more weight, by this point the balance has almost completely shifted to conventional verse-chorus structures.
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.
In a recent interview with Clash, James Blake explained how lockdown saw him recenter and reset all his insecurities in light of a larger crisis. It marked another improvement in his career-spanning journey towards finding equanimity, most recently with 2019's 'Assume Form' and its journey breaking free of the mental turmoil he once swam in. Now romantically self-assured, 'Friends That Break Your Heart' navigates the throes of the affecting friendships in his life.