James Blake's musical journey has been one wild ride. He didn't just enter the scene; he crashed onto it with his refreshingly unorthodox post-dubstep club anthems. While conventional wisdom might have dictated he'd follow that path, Blake veered off into this world of intimate, melancholic, and frosty world building. This shift in direction exposed a profoundly human dimension of his talent, coexisting harmoniously with his left-field tendencies. Albums like James Blake, The Color in Anything and Overgrown served as atmospheric and cinematic experiences, perfect for those brooding fall nights and melancholy-filled stay-ins.
Throughout his career, Blake also collaborated with some of the most star-studded names in the music industry including Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Travis Scott. He became the go-to producer for those seeking a unique, lo-fi, and immersive sound. Amidst all this glam, he released Assume Form and later Friends That Break Your Heart, both of which lacked the signature James Blake oomph. Assume Form struggled to weave a cohesive experience despite its haunting watery pianos and heartwarming lyrics, seemingly born from the honeymoon phase of a relationship. I get it and I don't judge, making mind-blowing art when you're wrapped up in a fresh, wine-soaked romance isn't exactly the easiest task. Friends That Break Your Heart, on the other hand, felt like a collection of beautiful ballads yet it felt too safe for a multi-talented artist like Blake. Then came Wind Down, an album that was Blake's Brian Eno & ASMR & Selected Ambient Works Volume II moment featuring ambient soundscapes.
With such a diverse array of musical choices, predicting Blake's next move is an exercise that tires the brain. Will he jump on a verse and spit some bars? Will he venture into poppier and safer territory? Or perhaps he'll take a complete U-turn and return to his roots, crafting an exhilarating album reminiscent of his earlier work—an experience we haven't witnessed in years. And speaking of that nostalgic journey, Playing Robots Into Heaven is precisely where James Blake takes us.
It's like he dusted off his old-school gear while weaving in his latest musical experiments, turning back the clock while sounding as fresh as ever. Each track is a harmonious blend of the past and the present, a testament to the enduring brilliance of an artist who has mastered their craft, where the passage of time only adds to the enjoyment of the musical journey.
The first single, Big Hammer, immediately sets the tone for what's to come. It's a deconstructed and wonky track that within the first second pulsates with energy. If I didn't know this was a recent release and hadn't already mastered his previous works, I might have easily mistaken it for one of his classic EDM hits that I somehow missed. Big Hammer seamlessly blends elements of dubstep with dancehall, creating a captivating fusion that reminds me of Jamie XX's recent musical direction. The music video accompanying the track is equally compelling. It transports you straight into a scene reminiscent of a Grand Theft Auto sequence, with a group of friends speeding through the streets, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
The opening track, Asking to Break subtly nods to My Willing Heart a standout from his earlier album, The Color in Anything. It's like he's melding his musical roots into this new record, putting electronic and lo-fi elements front and center. Loading kicks off with lyrics reminiscent of Assume Form, delivering the heartfelt line, "Wherever I go, I'm only as good as my mind, which is only good if you're mine." Within seconds, the song takes a sharp turn and transforms into an after-dark club anthem. The formula remains consistent for the next track, Tell Me, which happens to be the standout moment of the album. “Tell me if it’s worth waking up for” sings Blake, before the song reaches it's crescendo to become a full-on rave track.
I Want to Know is the kind of track you want to experience while wandering the dimly lit streets of a Northern city, much like the way you'd immerse yourself in Burial's Untrue. It's a moment that slows down the tempo, gently signaling that the party might be winding down. The time has come to step out of the club and into the real world. However, transitioning from the pulsating dance floor to the outside world can be bittersweet. The subsequent tracks, such as Fire the Editor and If You Can Hear Me, mark a notable shift in the album's mood, casting a veil of melancholy and introspection over the previously-pulsating beats.
In If You Can Hear Me, James engages in a profoundly introspective conversation with his father. With lines like "We speak less than I'd like, I don't know how I grew away from the vine, Took your lead, Followed your dream, I woke up from it even more tired," he lays bare his emotions. This track emerges as one of his most emotionally vulnerable and impactful pieces to date. It's an unfiltered and deeply stirring moment within the album, demonstrating Blake's remarkable ability to tap into his innermost feelings, even in the midst of what is otherwise a highly energy-driven album.
In essence, James Blake is a storyteller who thrives on contrast, and it's in this striking interplay of elements that his music achieves its most profound resonance. His artistry soars when he merges sentimentality with powerful production, flirting both with darkness and light.
Returning full circle to his roots, James Blake's evolution as an artist is a testament to his fearless pursuit of pushing boundaries. Even as he revisits his origins, he does so with a newfound maturity, incorporating the wisdom and vulnerability he's gained over the years. He continues to stand as a pioneer, crafting not only music but immersive experiences that resonate far beyond the final cadence.