ALBUM REVIEW: James Blake, Friends That Break Your Heart
Like Drake but to a much lesser degree, James Blake is at a point in his career where sonic familiarity trumps sonic exploration. We may never see another “Crew Love” or “Know Yourself” from Drake ever again; while those songs turned out to be major hits, they had odd song structures and atmospheres that people hadn’t really heard on a rap record before. Nonetheless, they were pop rap songs and he has always been a pop rapper, appealing to the masses was always going to be the end goal. James Blake started more so in the trenches of music, inhabiting spaces that your average listener wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I’m speaking of course about his early pioneering work as a producer in the UK electronic scene, specifically with non-vocal tracks like “CMYK” and “Klavierwerke”. Back in those days, there was a rich underground that supported the weirdos, no radio play necessary. As he grew more popular, he started to add melodies and choruses to his work that matched the bonkers manipulations he was doing on his electronic singles. His self-titled debut was filled with iconic, late-night festival sex jams like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Limit To Your Love”. He became like a singer-songwriter, but one that used keyboards and confusing machines with 100 knobs and buttons to make these robotic masterworks rather than just a guitar.
As he furthered his career, you could hear the commercial potential start to blossom. “Retrograde” was much cleaner and simpler than the early stuff, and was subsequently used as dramatic backing for scenes in shows like Suits and Blacklist. The Color In Anything was, in my opinion, his last truly great record. Listening to it last weekend with Troy and Ibe brought me back to late-night study sessions. Tracks like “Points”, “I Hope My Life” and the ethereal “Two Men Down” all struck me as original, avant-garde and touching, especially as it was revealed later that this record and Frank Ocean’s Blonde were connected in many ways. I would’ve loved to see James Blake exist in this “I can do whatever the fuck I want” space like Ocean forever, but bigger opportunities awaited him. Soon after, he began getting huge acts like Travis Scott and Rosalia on his albums, started producing for Kendrick Lamar, and co-headlining massive festivals. He now exists in a space where all the innovation and accolades from indie blogs are in the rear view mirror, and he is in a whole other stratosphere popularity-wise. That is all to say, Friends That Break Your Heart is by no means a bad record, just a predictable one.
This album is on the border of being something I wouldn’t review, if you want to call that C- or C, go for it. The reason why I even listened to it in the first place is because I was under the influence of something and was watching Our Planet on Netflix with the other members of this page. I was also recovering from being hungover and didn’t want to hear music that was too intense or lyrical, and this was the first new thing that came to mind. In that very specific setting, this album is extremely pleasant. The HD visuals of whales shooting water out of their blowholes in slow-motion, or fish sadly resting up against choral, or glaciers breaking and falling synced up perfectly to the music. This was a casual listening experience for a very calming and casual album, so let me take you through some highlights in the same manner. “Famous Last Words” is a far cry from the artistically bleak music he used to make, but the sad boy vibes are still very much intact. “Ooo you’re the last of my old things/Cast from my broken limbs” he dejectedly sings over low, blurbing synths. “Coming Back” with SZA could’ve been far worse in the hands of a lesser producer or songwriter, but I think Blake actually handled the duet well. Sure, the lyrics like “I’m coming back tail between my legs” and “there’s a mile between my heart and my head” are kind of bland and trite, but the vibe is heavy, especially when SZA comes in.
“Frozen” with JID & SwaVay started playing when this horrific sea slug was crawling around and some weird red underwater planet was opening and closing, it’s like Our Planet skipped to that scene. The dark, vocally manipulated Blake and JID vocals intertwine in this uncanny way that actually sounds awesome. I think at this point, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find JID dropping a bad verse, and he doesn’t disappoint here either, the line “.50 cal in the Virgil murse” stands out to me. Overall, the record has this pervading cold trap sound that is unrecognizable from his first three albums, he is definitely looking to be put in the Pollen playlist on Spotify rather than in some Brooklyn dive-rave DJ set. Even so, songs like “Say What You Will” definitely have their place in this world, Blake’s unique vocal approach still continues to be the major draw. He just has this certain way of bending his words that hooks me. “Lost Angel Nights” gets a little more nocturnal and synthy with it as well, a sound that I feel like he should lean into further. “If I’m Insecure” has this washed out organ that makes me feel like I’m in some kind of Upside Down World church as well, and Blake gives his best vocal performance on the entire record.
This is a nice record to get stoned with your buddies and watch a cool visual of some sort, it’s also useful for getting work done. It has some bright spots in the performances and production, but I have a feeling that I won’t be checking out the next James Blake record. It’s a difficult task to be the middle child between the underground and mainstream, and Blake is navigating it as well as he has to I suppose. I just wish he could retreat back to his oddball experiments, that’s all.