James Blake’s 10-year résumé of emotionally vulnerable songwriting has garnered critical acclaim, famous fans, and a depressive reputation — that of the oft-repeated “sad boy.” Blake has often held himself at arm’s distance from the descriptor. But last May, in the aftermath of the release of his single “Don’t Miss It,” the British singer and producer addressed the term head on. “I’ve always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men who openly talk about their feelings,” he said in a tweet, before stating why it’s imperative for men to be sensitive: because there is “no great victory in machismo.” Though Blake’s music has a history of pulling you into a beautiful abyss of moody falsettos and dreary narratives, he had a point. The public’s reasoning behind “sad boy” subscribed to an old-fashioned way of thinking.
On his new album Assume Form, Blake abandons that piercing despair — though not his emotional vulnerability — by choosing romance over sorrow. “Fell in love overseas / Fell in love like it’s easy,” he sings on the Travis Scott- and Metro Boomin-assisted “Miles High.” On “Tell Them,” he weighs whether he should finally let his defenses down: “I didn’t plan to stay long / In the snake pit so long / I’ve got posters up / Been defending so long.” His anxieties aren’t gone, necessarily, he’s just learned to share them with another person. On “Are You in Love,” he’s mostly confident of his own feelings, but not of his partners — “I reserve the right to disappear… I promise you your place is safe / Now what about mine?” — over a synth riff that sounds like a Vegas slot machine. Kisses abound in “Where’s the Catch” (“We delay the show / We kiss so long / We breathe through the nose”), before André 3000 swoops in with one of his typical head-spinning guest features. By the end of the song he’s only partially content, wondering whether his new feelings are worth trusting. With closing track “Lullaby for My Insomniac,” Blake is finally, or at least temporarily, keeping his worries at bay, looking to comfort someone other than himself for the time being: “If you can’t / I’ll stay up / I’ll stay up too.” Concerned, happy, smitten — no matter the feeling, Blake is still willing to broadcast them all.