Love is a murky, uncertain, only sporadically blissful thing on James Blake’s fourth album, “Assume Form.” But sometimes it manages to break through his chronic melancholy. He needs the changeup, because echoes of his own past are his toughest competition.
Since the release of his self-titled debut album in 2011, Blake’s style has made a thoroughly improbable conquest of pop’s commercial mainstream, seeping into hip-hop, R&B and rock. Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak chose him as a collaborator, and streaming blockbusters like Post Malone, Future and Juice WRLD have clearly learned from his vocabulary of oozy, slow-motion chords, electronically wobbled vocals and transitions that crumble and lurch into new configurations.
Before his debut album, Blake had made a reputation as a club D.J. playing and producing fractured, aggressively disorienting British dubstep tracks. But “James Blake” turned his music radically inward. He constructed ballads around sparse keyboard chords and his sustained, doleful, androgynous voice, hovering in imaginary space and punctuated by tense silences.
He was, he told The Guardian in 2016, “copying dubstep rhythms but using gospel-tinged, classically tinged keyboard playing.” But he was doing more than that. For all his debts to British dubstep and to the moody desolation of hip-hop auteurs like RZA (who was a guest on Blake’s 2013 album, “Overgrown”), Blake had found a way to create a charged stillness, a forsaken fortress of solitude. His music suited an era of disembodied digital interactions, at once instantaneous and physically distant.
With “Assume Form,” Blake wants to get closer. His previous albums were suffused with loneliness; this one, tentatively and almost incredulously, ponders intimacy. In the album’s title song, Blake sings about choosing to become embodied: “I’ll leave the ether/I will assume form,” he croons. “I will be touchable by her/I will be reachable.” The track fluctuates gorgeously, juxtaposing loops of piano that are soothing and vaguely ominous, and only settling into a beat about halfway through, like a ghost gradually solidifying.
[Never miss a pop music story: Get our weekly newsletter, Louder.]
The album is full of gratitude and affectionate apologies. “Into the Red” marvels at a woman’s financial generosity, over a track that dwindles from a string-ensemble arrangement to tiny, plinking tones. “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow,” built on a rapturous sample from the R&B vocal group the Manhattans and produced with Oneohtrix Point Never, revels in sensuality that makes the singer “waive my fear of self.” In “Power On,” he lists his delusions of separateness and self-sufficiency — “I thought you were second place to every song” — only to return to a refrain: “I was wrong.”
Blake rarely lets his music feel too secure. He still makes pitches waver and rhythms dissolve; he switches texture with sudden, surreal edits. In two songs, he collaborates with the producer Metro Boomin and guest vocalists: Travis Scott in “Mile High” and Moses Sumney in “Tell Them.” But he calmly destabilizes Metro Boomin’s trap rhythms, entangling them with flute sounds in “Mile High” and fitfully swapping them for flamenco handclaps in “Tell Them.” Well aware of how widely imitated he is, Blake offers some other surprises; if it were in a different musical guise, the borderline stalker-ish “I’ll Come Too” could almost be a Tin Pan Alley ballad.
Like the rest of Blake’s albums, “Assume Me” opens into haunted, rewarding depths. All that’s missing is one luminous, fully focused pop chorus, like “Retrograde” on Blake’s 2013 “Overgrown” or “My Willing Heart” on his 2016 “The Colour in Anything.” This album comes closest in “Barefoot in the Park,” a duet with the Spanish singer Rosalía that, despite its minor key and somber descending chords, celebrates togetherness and how “You start rubbing off on me.” Perhaps Blake couldn’t bring himself to write something as clichéd as a hit-seeking pop love song.