Friends who break your heart
Archives of the Republic
Albums filled with sappy love songs are such an established framework for pop music that electro-R & B artist James Blake already has two under his belt. What more can there be to say on the subject of romance, grief or passion? On Blake’s fifth studio album Friends That Break Your Heart, the digital age crooner chooses to tap into the same vein that produced his best work many years ago, only to find it. To dry up.
Blake’s music formula changed over the course of his discography. Its excellent, The self-titled debut album established Blake as caught somewhere between the glitchy disjunction of electronic music and the conventional arrangement of pop music – accompanied by his distorted and ghostly self-tuned voice. Now all that’s left is Blake’s heavenly voice, now occupying melodies tuned to generic pop tunes with a casual electronic flair. Watching Blake become more and more simplistic and unambitious over time is disappointing for any artist who was once considered to be on the cutting edge of technology.
Perhaps the reason for this change can be found in the company that Blake keeps. Looking at the credits from his first three albums, the names are pretty sparse – “Overgrown” features guest vocals from RZA while “The Color in Anything” lists Rick Rubin and Bon Iver as main collaborators. These names served mainly supporting roles on one or two tracks. It wasn’t until his 2019 album “Assume Form” that the producer / singer started working alongside artists like Travis Scott, Metro Boomin and Daniel Lopitan of Oneohtrix Point Never. These collaborators have introduced trap-influenced percussion and mood-driven songwriting to its catalog, creating an atmosphere of heavy persuasion that plagues “Friends That Break Your Heart”. Some tracks like “Frozen” end up sounding like their star performers, in this case a song by JID featuring some of Blake’s wonderful backing vocals and painfully simplistic structure. The same can be said for even the best track on the album, “Coming Back,” which features SZA effectively requisitioning the song while Blake mostly hides in the mix. Blake has always been the most confident when riding solo, so seeing him add unnecessary bells and whistles to his sound is frustrating.
Almost all of the tracks on the 12 song album perfectly show what works and what doesn’t about “Friends That Break Your Heart”. The song “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” combines Blake’s unchanged vocals with a chorus featuring his voice so distorted it sounds utterly alien. Her voice is built around some of the album’s more experimental productions with some bounce., new-age synth keys and what Teslas looks like breaking through the sound barrier. It incorporates a string section à la Bernard Herrmann It is equally angelic and unnerving. However, the repetitive lyrics neutralize any character of the song, ultimately leaving it lifeless. One can only bear to hear the phrase “I am so blessed that you are mine” so many times. Compelling ideas are present in small doses on this album, but none of them seem to have come to its conclusion.
Blake in his purest form is still an emotionally powerful artist; his use of melody separates him from many similar artists working in pop music today. Sadly, “Friends That Break Your Heart” doesn’t find Blake working with these strengths. The mileage of this album will depend on how many times the listener can hear the same love song over and over again without getting bored.