James Blake Delivers Thoughtful Art-Pop with “Friends That Break Your Heart”

Friends That Break Your Heart Official Album Artwork (Republic; Polydor)

THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON NINETY55.COM

The 5th studio album from James Blake, “Friends That Break Your Heart”, is easily his most accessible project yet, even more so than 2019’s “Assume Form”, where the Mercury Award winner took inspiration from his frequent hip-hop collaborators, using just as many tight hi-hats as vocoders. Blake is talented enough to keep the change from cheapening his sound, and it actually makes for a more consistent album than his last couple projects.

But there’s still a trade-off, as the peaks of “Friends That Break Your Heart” aren’t nearly as high as what he’s produced in the past. It’s not all different though. While “Assume Form” was essentially a love letter to James’ partner Jameela Jamil, as the title suggests “Friends That Break Your Heart” mostly returns to the sad boi aesthetics that he’s so synonymous with.

The album opens strong, with previously released singles “Famous Last Words” & “Life Is Not The Same” doing a great job of setting the tone for the record. The former didn’t scream ‘album opener’ when it was released as the last single for the album, and it still doesn’t in the context of the track list. But the downtrodden ballad establishes that vocal performance and harmonies are going to be the star of “Friends That Break Your Heart” more so than James’ eclectic production.

Take A Daytrip is the 1st guest to appear on the album on “Life Is Not The Same”, and if you thought I was joking about the sad boi aesthetics, even his producer tag at the start is slowed and pitched down. James laments about his efforts to keep a relationship alive, angry that he ever bothered to try to change for the other person. Life now feels as pointless as the relationship. It’s clear why this was chosen as a single, as this song is a perfect example of what James does best on this album: use the space between the notes to accent emotion. The production all over “Friends That Break Your Heart” is relatively sparse & spacey, giving the vocal performances room to breathe.

“Coming Back” featuring SZA is the internet’s early frontfrunner for sleeper hit of the album, and it makes sense as the collaboration works really well. SZA’s verse is wordier and bouncier, while Blake’s is more melodic and succinct. They wrote their own parts and let their individual strengths shine without forgetting to blend into the song. It actually reminds me of something from SZA’s “Z” album, but with a lot more polish & character in the production.

James borrows some classic R&B harmonies on “Funeral” – that ‘don’t give up on me. Please I’ll be the best I can be’ refrain is straight out of an 80’s soul joint. The song is built around it, and the simplicity works thanks to one of many deft vocal performances on the album. Also, James Blake clearly thinks as little of slowthai as I do, because he made a deluxe version of this album and literally the only difference between the two is a version of “Funeral” with slowthai on it.

“Frozen” starts a bit of a 2 track slump on the record. It’s definitely not a bad song though. JID continues his recent hot-streak with another great feature focusing on police brutality, and how the media has turned it into a tv show we’re all comfortable with instead of highlighting the injustice. Even SwaVay almost impresses with a fun verse that tries to get a little too smart for its own good towards the end. The problem is what happens before and between, as Blake fails to link all of this with his refrains leaving the song feeling disjointed.

Easily the worst song on the album “I’m So Blessed Your Mine” follows. It sounds like a song a 14 year-old in a snapback & skinny jeans tight enough to turn his legs blue would’ve made on Garageband as a one month-iversary present to his girlfriend. Despite being one of the busier beats on the record, it feels underwritten and almost the entire runtime is taken up by that awful chorus.

Things quickly bounce back though, with the best non-ballad on the record “Foot Forward”. Metro Boomin, who was on several tracks on “Assume Form” shows up here, and the pair of superstar producers’ styles once again mesh perfectly. Blake’s crisp falsetto soaring over the dusty, lo-fi piano chords is just gorgeous. It’s one of the few unabashedly positive songs on “Friends That Break Your Heart”, but the change isn’t jarring especially since it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome at just 2:33 in length.

“Show Me” is full of the lovely vocal layering James Blake is so known for. He and Monica Martin sing a duet about still feeling proud of an ex’s personal growth, still wanting to see them do good and be all they can be. The pair hope the people they were once in love with are able to give themselves fully to the next person. From this point on in the record the sad boi aesthetics feel more like sad man aesthetics, as James thoughtfully touches on some ideas about relationships- both platonic & romantic- that aren’t as often discussed in music.

“Say What You Will” is the best vocal performance on an album full of fantastic vocal performances. The song is all about feeling content with where you are personally with someone, at peace with whatever you or they do or say. For better or worse. It was released as the 1st single in this album cycle, but in the full tracklist the subject matter lands better. This song on its own makes the sequencing feel purposeful, marked by the shift in James’ self-assuredness. The moment towards the end when he leans full tilt into his falsetto as the song transitions from acapella back into the full instrumentation is the best 20 seconds on the whole record.

The production on “Lost Angel Nights” feels like Blake taking cues from another frequent collaborator, Frank Ocean. It’s nostalgia inducing, nocturnal, a little hypnotic at the chorus. His performance here is more understated to match the instrumentation, and also because this is the most self-aware track here. James introspects about his place in the industry in the last few years and how becoming influential has affected his own work. He seems worried about being left behind now that he’s far from a new artist, but isn’t envious of the ‘imitations’ that are on the come-up. He just wants to stay cutting edge, without losing himself.

The title track of the album is a disappointment in a number of ways. It breaks up the narrative momentum building with the last few tracks, completely abandons almost all of the album’s sonic aesthetics, and quite frankly deals with what should be interesting subject matter incredibly shallowly. You get pretty much every interesting idea this song has to offer from the title.

How an album ends can really affect how you feel about it overall, so thankfully the title track of “Friends That Break Your Heart” isn’t the closer. Instead, we have “If I’m Insecure”, a love song about setting aside your insecurities to devote yourself to someone. The complexities, anxieties, and existentialism that inherently comes with being alive in 2021 manage not to be so overwhelming for Blake because there’s one thing he’s sure of. It’s not exactly an arena banger, but juxtaposed against the rest of the album the confidence & positivity feels anthemic, delivering a satisfying conclusion.

No one track on “Friends That Break Your Heart” is going to blow you away, as songs like “Retrograde” “Wilhelm Scream” or “What’s the Catch?” have on James Blake’s past releases. But the album stands up against the streaming-era trend of sequence-agnostic albums, and rewards listening to it in tracklist order with its consistency and the maturity with which it deals with its subject matter in most spots. There are a few hiccups here and there- some more forgivable than other- and the typically daring Blake plays things safer than he maybe should. But the guest appearances are all strong & distinct without feeling out of place, and James Blake turns in some of his most well-crafted vocal performances to date. It’s definitely not perfect, but at its best “Friends That Break Your Heart” is a thoughtful, excellently produced and often gorgeous art-pop album.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s