A brave EP of quiet complexity…

The nostalgia at the heart of ‘Summer Of Now’, the final track from James Blake’s new EP, is something that we all seem to be yearning for of late.

The track’s narrator repeatedly references the summer of 2015, in this context a happier, almost rose-tinted time, comparing themselves unfavourably as “the summer of now”. As the events of a seemingly never-ending 2020 continue to play out, each one more physically, mentally, economically, and socially devastating than the last, a lot of us have found ourselves looking back to fonder times, when we could see friends, hug loved ones, and ultimately live with the freedoms that we were brought up to take for granted. It’s a sombre note to end on, one as reflective and meditative as Blake has been capable of producing of late.

After all, last year’s – I know, somehow it is still only last year – ‘Assume Form’ marked a change in tack for the historically-introverted superstar. Until that point, his output had suggested that he was a man of extraordinary talent who refused to succumb to the more obvious tropes of mainstream songwriting. Nowhere on his first three albums could you ever accuse Blake of being sentimental or conventionally “happy”. Having spent three years working with some of the biggest names in music

Kanye West, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Bon Iver all released albums that included Blake’s name among the credits – and settling into the giddy throws of adult love alongside fellow US-conquering-Brit Jameela Jamil, Blake made his comeback in a manner we’d never before seen. Assume Form was a warm record, an almost schmaltzy record, an album entirely fixated with and dedicated to the the sense of completion one finds when taking on life with their soulmate by their side. It was an entirely different beast from the records he produced in his bedroom nearly a decade beforehand, and felt all the more human and vulnerable for it.

Just over eighteen months later, we have a new project on our hands. One which sees James Blake wander closer to the caustic studio experiments that made his name than the crooning ballads of his most recent masterpiece, whilst continuing on an evidently tricky and rocky road to self- acceptance. It is an EP of songs that will offer solace to those who found the overt romance – by Blake’s standards, at least – of ‘Assume Form’ in any way off-putting. An entirely modern, futuristic collection of songs that feel like the first step of something greater, as though Assume Form will prove to be the emotional pallet cleanser that, having now left his system, will make him more assured of his default artistry as a songwriter at home in more otherworldly, haunting, ice-cold soundscapes.

There are definitely suggestions here that the soul-baring attitude he took on ‘Assume Form’ doesn’t always sit so comfortably with Blake. On the title track, he speaks of only needing people when he’s in pain, and perhaps only realising that he is in any sort of trouble because he is starting to rely on someone else. It’s a summarisation of an unfortunate, but sadly all-too-prevalent outlook shared by many men, grappling with their internal struggles whilst attempting to maintain a dated and harmful ideal of what strength actually means.

As the walls of the toxic masculine facade continue to – thankfully – fall, a phenomena and discussion which Blake has often found himself involved in, these signifiers of assumed weakness will continue to die out. His ability to convey such complexities in a single repeated phrase remains one of his most prized and singular gifts. Elsewhere, insecurities continue to rear their ugly heads. On ‘Do You Ever’, Blake asks “Do you ever think about me? / Really, if you’re honest with me?”. 

The overarching theme of the EP remains one of self-belittlement and internal gremlins which refuse to alleviate and allow someone to enjoy life to its fullest. Over the course of this work, the crippling nature of these fears becomes increasingly apparent, to an almost heartbreaking extent. It is clear that, much as the man of ‘Assume Form’ may hope to deny it, the inescapable loneliness bestowed upon us as creatures of a 21st Century world will never fully relinquish itself from our psyche.

 Blake-as-producer has always been a wonderfully elusive character, and so he proves here with four songs which, even after repeated listens, I find myself struggling to draw historic comparisons with, in terms of texture and tone. Whilst the lyrics of these four tracks may repeatedly point towards an inner turmoil, the sounds that orbit them feel fresh, innovative, and full of conviction.

This duality has served Blake well in the past and does so here too. It is an EP that feels content with its inconsistencies rather than trying to cover them up, a lesson which we could all surely learn from. A project which doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of his studio albums, the Before EP nevertheless reaffirms James Blake as one of the most exciting and era-defining artists currently working, and long may that continue.

7/10

Words: Mike Watkins

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