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James Blake - Friends That Break Your Heart (Album Review)

Tuesday, 12 October 2021 Written by Jacob Brookman

In a recent GQ interview with James Blake, the London born singer-producer and Los Angeles transplant explained: “I do genuinely want to make music for people who are just sitting by the swimming pool.” His fifth album, ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’ may well succeed in this aspiration, and that may not be a good thing.

Since 2011, Blake has established himself as a hugely distinctive musician and sought-after producer with a very high bar in terms of production quality and digital arrangement. Furthermore, he has shown a unique knack for melding trap textures with falsetto balladry —it’s a sound that has felt incredibly contemporary despite being a bit samey and, to be uncharitable for a second, ‘sad boy’.

Within this context, his latest album is a collection of well thought out and elegantly arranged songs that, despite their sonic quality, simply do not live long in the memory.

Say What You Will is one of the more melodically distinct and Famous Last Words is another keeper, but a few listens in, one gets the overwhelming feeling that this is an easy-listening record for people who consider themselves above easy-listening.

Such observations feel unkind—James Blake is not his listeners, nor is he the music critics who venerate him as a kind-of digital Nick Drake, and yet there is an acrid smack of disingenuousness on ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’.

The rapper collabs, something that previously misfired on 2019’s ‘Assume Form’,  land just as unconvincingly and incongruously here. On Frozen, for example, Blake's hyper-sensitive weepy drawl is adorned with lines about gun violence and bitch ass cops from JID and SwaVay.

Ultimately, there is a tension at the heart of this LP between high calibre production and mid-to-low quality songwriting. There is also something quite telling about that swimming pool quote. 'Friends That Break Your Heart' feels like the domain of high net worth ennui—the loneliness of a particular kind of privilege. There is plenty of good art that details that sentiment, but this is a bit too self-aware and in good taste to land an emotional punch. Maybe that's what he was aiming for.

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