James Blake Lays Himself Bare on 'Friends That Break Your Heart'
Published Oct 07, 2021Few 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. Subsequently, it shouldn't be any surprise that he would continue in a similar vein of collaborations and experiments across the pop spectrum. If Assume Form was a sampler of his future artistic trajectory, Friends That Break Your Heart is the case of an artist finding his stride in a new lane — one he's long wanted to be in.
The album feels often as though it borders on the edge of manic sonic intrepidity (a shadow of his early post-dubstep days), but in many cases, it opts for balladry and emotiveness in its stead. For the most part, it's not quite to the level of boundary-breaking electronic pop as in, for instance, his excellent single "If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead." Rather, the album is a deep dive into his emotional state without abandon. His sonic quirks appear on occasion, but they take a backseat to the emotion on display.
Overall, Friends That Break Your Heart stands alone in his discography with the sheer brilliance of the vocal performances. The performances on his eponymous debut and the subsequent albums were all nothing to scoff at, but the crystalline clarity in this most recent work is evident to hear. Images of isolation and ostracism are regularly conjured throughout, both in the context of a relationship and in the context of Blake's relationship with society and music. These themes have appeared in many of his previous works, as in songs like "Overgrown," but the difference here is that these ideas are stripped bare of metaphor and are confronted with lyrical candour. "I can only be what I am" he sings on "Life Is Not the Same," as if to draw a line in the sand to his detractors in saying that his malleability is far from limitless. He does readily admit on "Coming Back" that "there's a mile between my heart and my head," almost signalling that his desires may not always be the most rational ones. SZA features excellently with a verse that alludes to the same point: "Do you fantasise about the things you really want to feel?"
On many occasions, the album retracts into cigarette-lighter-swaying crooning, as on "Funeral," where Blake feels as though he "live[s] in leaves that crunch under your feet." The song, and others similar on the album, can feel as though it relies a bit too heavily on ballad-esque musical tropes to deliver its message of vulnerability. These are themes he has considered in the past, especially raised in the face of masculine societal expectations. "Frozen" offers a counterpoint with menace and aggression, featuring J.I.D and SwaVay bringing light to the manic symptoms of isolation that can manifest: "Lately, I've been thinking that I might've lost my mind."
Ultimately, this is an album about frank self-reflection in the absence of abstraction. It does occasionally err too heavily towards swaying ballad tropes, but importantly Blake never hides his feelings through allegory or metaphor, nor does he mangle his vocal delivery with electronic trickery. Friends That Break Your Heart is James Blake delivering a crooning stream of consciousness that lays bare his thoughts for the world to hear, and he hasn't a care what you may think about them. (Republic)