James Blake’s fifth album, Friends That Break Your Heart, has what he calls “a Ronseal title”. It’s all about the uneasy emotional terrain we find ourselves treading when friendships end. As he told The Independent last month: “The protocol for friendship ending isn’t really there… Unlike a romantic relationship, where you can basically say, ‘I’m just not happy, this isn’t right to me any more’, if you said that to a friend they’d be like, ‘What the f*** are you talking about? Just don’t text me!’”
This subject matter is perfect for an artist who enjoys nudging his clever, melancholy electronica into experimental sonic zones. The 33-year-old built his name on music scattered with awkward silences and elegantly constructed synth-soul melodies, pitch-shifted and dubstepped anxiously around their soft centres. If songs could avoid eye-contact, I remember thinking when I heard his debut album, then that’s what these are doing. “Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now,” Blake sang over muffled bass, handclaps and distorted keyboard on his Mercury Prize-winning second album, Overgrown, as his voice spiralled wordlessly up into angelic falsetto phrases.
Then, in 2019, the loved-up Assume Form showed Blake embracing a warmer musical palate, ahead of last year’s Before EP, where he bopped back into club culture. “I’m not the summer of all my worries, and I’m not the summer of yours / I’m not the summer of 2015, but I can be the summer of now,” he sang, apparently shaking off that trademark sorrow.
Friends That Break Your Heart isn’t a total return to the wintry grey-blue detachments of Blake’s earlier work. The sadness he expresses here is more engaged and autumnal, as he thinks about the friends he left behind while moving from England to America, and from civilian life into one where he hangs out with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. He moans like an October wind on opener “Famous Last Words”. Raindrops of synth notes plop around him as he concedes: “You’re the last/ You’re the last of my old things/ The cast from my broken limbs.” Deep, distorted vocals shift the gear into the leather-seated R&B groove of “Life is Not the Same”, where he accepts the hopelessness of a long-distance relationship.
Blake has credited his girlfriend, the actor and activist Jameela Jamil, with the emotional directness heard on his most recent releases. Although I find myself missing the old modernist lines about stones and squids, the new clarity pays off in many places. But this simplicity also comes with clunks and clichés, such as the inelegant: “I’ll come out of my shell/ ’Cause I want the cake and I wanna eat it as well,” on “Funeral”. It’s a line that sits uncomfortably on the tender tune.
But there’s a real assurance with the way the album builds pace towards the middle. “Frozen” was originally written for rapper JID’s album but works brilliantly here, with Blake’s autotuned vocals whistling spookily around JID and SwaVay’s richer, fleshier voices. “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” keeps the pace up while “Foot Forwards” is driven by finger snaps as Blake accepts: “It’s OK, I know I’ll be replaced… I put my best foot forward/ What else can I do?” “Show Me”, a collaboration with Monica Martin, is a remarkable kaleidoscope of a song, with melodies and ideas tumbling and blurring into new moods and patterns.
Towards the end of the album, “Lost Angel Nights” finds Blake exploring the isolation of the pandemic: “I’ve been losing my place/ And in my place… I hope it’s not too late to make up for all those lost angel nights.” Against a gently picked acoustic guitar, the title track finally reveals his voice stripped of all studio disguises, to crack sweetly into a confession that, “In the end it was friends that broke my heart.” Few artists can make such heartbreak sound so pretty, while still reflecting on all its weirdness and complexity.