Album Review: James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
Online Music Editor Tom Bosher reviews James Blake’s latest album, Friends That Break Your Heart.
James Blake; renowned for envelope pushing production, luxurious musicality, vibrant and vivid sonics. All of these let Blake efficiently cut through the dense forest of emotional protection we may have forged, to find and secure the heart of every atmosphere imaginable. The standout of the three singles preceding the release of the LP, ‘Say What You Will‘ perfectly demonstrates Blake’s infinite playability. I honestly cannot remember the last time having a song on repeat as much as that filth-ridden banger. Safe to say my hopes were high for the album, and long story short, he delivered.
Blake provides a tight project, cohesive in sound and subject. He stitches together what should a lot of the time, be awkward unmatched threads, into a wonderfully frayed sonic tapestry that you can’t help but stand and gaze at in awe. An ideal accompaniment for movement into autumn, Friends That Break Your Heart seeks to find acceptance and calm in previous turbulent bloodshed. It feels lighter than Blake’s other projects, more comfortable and less fractured.
After the first two singles, Blake presents us with the first official feature and collaboration with SZA on ‘Coming Back‘. Jaw dropping production cements this as the first of numerous new hits, as Blake sets up layers of space; high and low. He flits between these, as though there’s a higher ambient atmosphere that he’s able to reach up and grab from when needed, and then pins us down to the ground with low thumping subterranean sounds that SZA skilfully helps counter with a killer ethereal performance.
Blake puts the handbrake on before we can get too excited about being heartbroken. Although ‘Funeral‘ is inherently about the concern of other’s opinions, it’s a deeply personal struggle of a track, a crying out. A stark low fidelity soundscape of gainy electronic piano scratches the underbelly of the song as it travels along, smoothed over by Blake’s vocals and an airy reverb clap that bounces around. It’s a track that quietly whimpers “please don’t forget about me”, and is a classic example of Blake’s vulnerability made vocal.
We’re not left to emotionally spiral for too long as ‘Frozen‘ featuring JID & SwaVay hits us right in the gut with a dirty tune. It honestly feels like he’s reinventing minimalism on this track, and I know giving ‘new definition’ to something is an overused phrase but somehow Blake justifies it. The double panned vocals of JID is surreal and he kills his verse plain and simple. An unbelievable chorus pulls you up and away, as what should be disparate and vacuous metallic sounds conform, like iron filings magnetised. Swavay’s pointed verbal shots clarify the track’s already confirmed status as another certified banger.
combinations Blake presents should in practice be cluttered, yet seem to be crystalline sonic images, clear and unencumbered
‘I’m So Blessed You’re Mine‘ comes in as a successively sharp right hook, as retro-game bumbling synths timidly commence the track that swiftly transforms into a sonic stun. “But away we go”. Warped bass synths pre-empt a chorus that is frankly earth-shattering. It glides over, yet is simultaneously riveted to an incredible beat, perforated with heavy 808s. I’m continually astounded by how the combinations Blake presents should in practice be cluttered, yet seem to be crystalline sonic images, clear and unencumbered. Blake proves he can go as high as he can go low with a chorus that sounds euphoric, and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t got anyone romantic to say he’s blessed to have.
As on ‘Funeral’, Blake flirts once again with a grainy, gainy sound on ‘Foot Forward‘, commencing with a looped piano chord sequence that feels like it’s been chucked through an N64. A contribution from Metro Boomin who was a strong feature on Blake’s previous project Assume Form. Blake himself describes the song as “anthemic” in a recent Apple Music Interview, a descriptor I can hardly debate. Yet again; a banger.
‘Show Me‘ paces us once more. As luscious vocals from Blake are the entrée for Monica Martin who dominates the track – a perfect fit – her voice opens up the song. She melts all over it, hosting the truly pained subject matter. This is one that really hit me hard, a state of looking back at a previous partner and seeing growth they’ve made, and wishing to see that change and experience that growth with them even though you’re now separate. It just pierces straight through you, this track is an emotional peak of relatability.
‘Lost Angel Nights‘ begins as a sci-fi-scape the likes Ridley Scott would dream of, but evolves into a blanket of – forgive the unoriginality of adjective – angelic synths, poked through with dry clicks of percussion, whilst Blake delivers his golden standard of vocals. Ending with a warm fade out, this track is so solid it just demands repeat plays.
I wish I could say this project goes the whole mile without tripping up, but funnily it’s the title track ‘Friends That Break Your Heart‘ that disappointed. The only real short straw, it features acoustic guitar which is a rare tool from Blake’s kitbag of instrumentation, which shows. It’s the least confident and daring instrumental implementation on the album, a mild and tame venturing into strange unknown territory, paired with an occasionally somewhat awkward sounding vocal performance. Whilst lyrically standing strong as a cornerstone for the album and a resonant hard-hitting theme, it remains a relatively stagnant and repetitive song. Although the track slowly rises, it isn’t afforded any real runway to take-off.
Emotions eb and flow through this album with ease
As the final song, ‘If I’m Insecure‘ reasserts any lacking confidence from the penultimate track. An expanse of harmonies firmly finalise the album with a celebration of instability, and so naturally stabilises any uncomfortably insecurity.
I won’t lie I had to google synonyms for master for this review. Control is maybe the key characteristic of that word though. Blake possesses a natural affinity for the balancing and interplay of dryness and reverb, preventing his tracks from what could easily be wet and sloppy water-logged mush. A sonic theme of low fidelity is responded to with crystal clear beams of sonic light – like the glittering synths heard toward the end of ‘Show Me’ – they cut through the shadowy murky undertones. I’m going to say it again, he is also a master of stereo. Blake makes ‘left’ and ‘right’ seem like arbitrary terms, as every single degree of his 180 segments of canvas are used with precision to achieve a simplicity of sound that sneak attack deeply complex ideas. Emotions ebb and flow through this album with ease, whether they’re channelled through flourishing vocals harmonised like nobody else, or Blake’s fearless experimental cut-and-stick playful production. He might’ve ended on an ‘insecure’ note, but Blake has undoubtedly secured himself yet again as a… yup, master, of his craft.
Favourite Tracks: Frozen, I’m So Blessed You’re Mine, Coming Back, Foot Forward, Say What You Will, Show Me, Lost Angel Nights
Least Favourite Track: Friends That Break Your Heart