James Blake’s songwriting career is a mix of fragmented ideas and unconventional song structure, and this formula has resulted in some of his best work. His buttery voice and love of chords is evident in how his songs are structured, and his later work has prioritized pop structures as well as collaborating with both established and up-and-coming artists.
While his albums and sound selection do not deviate much from the singer-songwriting sphere, the listener is still brought into Blake’s world of Wurlitzers and reverb. His artistry has changed with respect to his collaborations, and at 33 years old with multiple albums under his belt, he's now a veteran in the music scene.
In his latest album, “Friends That Break Your Heart,” he combines his signature taste for emotional ballads with honest lyricism in a lighter format. His obsession with metaphors and organic imagery falls away as this album reveals some of his plainest and simplest lyrics to date.
Blake uses this album’s lyrics as an exercise in straightforwardness, which is a prominent departure from the tendency for vague statements and minimal production of Blake's last album, "Assume Form."
“As many loves that have crossed my path/In the end, it was friends/It was friends who broke my heart,” he sings in the title track. Platonic and romantic love are essential parts of human relationships, and the former is rarely given the attention it deserves.
The soft background keys and ambient string section gives his voice space to flourish, and this arrangement centered around his voice is a staple of Blake’s songwriting. He's aware of his strengths as a writer, and he is very hands-on with his production choices and sound selection.
Artists who also produce tend to be much more hands-on with their song creations, and they have a more intimate understanding of their voice and artistic nuances.
“Coming Back” featuring SZA highlights both of their strengths with warm piano chords and a rhythm and blues-centered ballad. “Don’t you have a clue about where my mind is right now ... /Or do you fantasize about the things you really wanna feel?” they sing.
Their assumptions and anxieties are so straightforward that they’re difficult to not resonate with, and you can feel his words are covered with honesty instead of cynicism. When writing about love, it’s easy to take a corny or metaphor-filled explanation, but Blake opts for nothing but straightforwardness.
“Frozen” with JID and SwaVay combines Blake’s singing with JID’s wordplay. “Cole/JID vid, my influences bought the views in/Writin' my woes, send a kite through the institution," JID raps.
His rapping contrasts nicely with Blake’s chord-centric progressions. JID’s career has skyrocketed since he signed with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records and released "The Never Story" in 2017, and seeing him collaborate with Blake signifies his growing power as an artist.
Blake has transitioned from pop’s eclectic wonder child to a centerpiece of his lane in the music industry. While his last album featured collaborations with industry heavyweights like Travis Scott, "Friends That Break Your Heart" feels like traveling in the opposite artistic direction.
The cover art is extremely colorful in comparison to black background of “Assume Form,” and this album’s themes are less serious and more universal than his predecessor. His collaborations on his latest are more cohesive and relevant to the album’s themes of loneliness and platonic love, and his production choices signifies James’ growth as a songwriter and artist.
Blake is no longer the industry’s black sheep — he has established himself as a highly respected and admired figure within the music community. This album will undoubtedly be loved by his fans and is a proud representation of Blake’s current personal and musical mindset.