James Blake Friends That Break Your Heart Republic
If you’ve ever had a friend, you’ll probably have lost one at some point too. It’s its own unique form of tragedy: somehow more painful, less explicable than the decay of a romantic relationship; in many ways less final, offering fewer opportunities for real closure. It’s the sort of affecting life event that makes great material for a film or a book or, yes, an album. So how is it that James Blake, an auteur of the highest calibre, manages to make the subject so deeply unrelatable?
On Friends That Break Your Heart, Blake trudges this exact emotional trench over 12 mostly-similar tracks. Like digging a hole at the beach, the more he shoves his spade in, the more the waters just keep welling up. The loved-up wanderings of 2019’s Assume Form are all but gone, as are, for the most part, the engrossing, avant-pop stylings of his self-titled 2011 debut and 2013’s outstanding Overgrown. Most dangerously, the self-awareness of 2016’s expertly melancholic The Colour in Anything is absent too. Instead, James Blake appears to be wallowing.
In 2018, Blake complained publicly about being labelled a “sad boy” for talking about his feelings. He suggested that calling people sad boys for talking about their feelings was contributing to the alarming rates of male suicide. Perhaps this was a brave thing to do, but the result – somewhat inevitably – was the world doubling down on calling him a sad boy. A year later, he wrote an essay titled ‘How can I complain?’ for a Penguin-published collection called It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (And Other Lies). He wrote about being bullied as a teenager for being sensitive and witty but bad at sport. He opened up about how his experiences fed an unhealthy personal toxicity and eventually led to bouts of panic attacks and depression – all the while consumed with a specific, heavy guilt: “There are much bigger problems in the world than white men who feel sad.” Yet in his pursuit to “advance the conversation around mental health for everyone”, Blake too has doubled down. So it is that we arrive at Friends That Break Your Heart.
There’s a difference between engaging with your feelings and being suffocatingly sentimental. Listening to an incredibly successful person sing about their insecurities (there’s a song called If I’m Insecure) just, somehow, isn’t that comforting or even thought-provoking. Say What You Will – a nadir, whose lyrics read like undercooked teenage poetry – sounds like Blake saw the Gal Gadot Imagine video and thought, ‘Awesome! Let me have a go!’ Even rich people living out their ideal career trajectory get sad, so that makes us all the same, right? That’s not how empathy works. In aiming so wide, Blake fails to convincingly engage with a perspective beyond his own. Lines like “I feel invisible in every city” and “I want to be heard if I can’t be seen” on Funeral, sound trite and unfelt – despite their pained delivery. These moments reveal the gaping disconnect between the album’s everyman intentions and its navel-gazing execution.
James Blake’s voice, while interesting in its own way and often skillfully deployed as an instrument itself, was never the best thing about James Blake’s music. If anything, he’s most adroit when working with other people’s vocals – whether it’s bending nostalgic samples into warped club gear or co-producing alongside pop music’s elite in LA studios. In recent years, Blake has added unparalleled distinction to records by everyone from Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar to Rosalía and slowthai. Here, both the SZA-featuring Coming Back and JID and SwaVay-assisted Frozen shine because they sound like James Blake-shaped songs rather than actual James Blake songs.
But the album isn’t without its moments. The cyclical verses on Lost Angel Nights are delightfully serene; the closing loop on I’m So Blessed You’re Mine could easily go on into eternity. Life is Not The Same hits all the right notes with its sloping bassline and gently throbbing kicks. Blake even gets playful with his voice, stretching and tweaking disembodied wails and murmurs; the self-harmonising chorus of “life is not the same if we’re miles away” is devastating in its simplicity. But getting through 11 more iterations on the same theme is difficult. This is explicit on Famous Last Words, where he lays it on thick with hollow metaphors like “you’re the last of my old things” that feel more and more grating with each listen.
Unlike a lost friend, this is all just so instantly forgettable. For an album so apparently stuffed with feeling, it’s strange to be left so deeply unmoved. But then maybe – to borrow that old get-out clause – it’s not you, it’s me.