At the time of writing, the three of us have reviewed James Blake more than any other artist. We’ve struck a certain routine with these: I like it, Andrew loves it, and Fred strikes comparisons to beached whales. All of us welcomed the songwriting development on 2019’s Assume Form, a record that has grown on me even more since its release, and possibly stands as my favourite in Blake’s discography.
Friends That Break Your Heart is unfortunately my least favourite. I don’t know whether I’ve just grown tired of a formula that has now continuted for ten years, or if Blake is running ideas into the ground. It’s probably a bit of both. All I know is, I’m mostly bored when listening to his latest album.
Smooth and soulful vocals glide over pretty synths, whilst the sub-bass continues to sit snugly alongside faint percussion. The feature spots from JID and SwaVay on “Frozen” are incredibly welcome, as they break up the melancholic blueprint. The cinematic strings at the end of “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” are a particular delight, reminding me a little of A Moon Shaped Pool. Too bad that only lasts for ten seconds. Back to the pensive falsetto’s we go.
Friends That Break Your Heart is fine, but after the evolution of Assume Form, I was hoping to see Blake venture futher into unfamiliar ground. Instead it’s highly predictable - a disappointingly safe move that doesn’t fill me with much hope for future works. I find it quite sad, actually, because James Blake was one of my favourite artists of the 2010s, and those records represent a notable point in my life. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to move on.
6 out of 10
I have made peace with the likelihood that James Blake albums will always be variations of the same thing. True to form, Friends That Break Your Heart is elegant, gentle, polished, and aimless ambient fare with sprinklings of pop. It is all these things over the course of 44 minutes rather than 144 minutes, so listens are pleasant rather than drawn out.
Highlights? There are a couple of solid Blake efforts to fight his way out of his paper bag. The vocals on “Coming Back” are sumptuous even by his very lovely standards, while “If I’m Insecure” is as close to an anthem as I’ve heard from him - with synths aplenty, of course. Otherwise I struggle to hold onto much. Those who like Blake’s sound will find plenty to like here. Those looking for him to build on the signs of change in Assume Form will find little. The only wildcards are the features, and I’m not sure they land.
At this point reviewing James Blake albums feels like my own personal version of Groundhog Day, except I don’t grow as a human being or shack up with a MacDowell at the end. There are only sombre sound bites, forever. No doubt we can all look forward to the next round in a year or two.
6 out of 10
It’s safe to say I’m easily pleased by any output from James Blake. With the release of his fourth studio album, I’ve had little else in my Spotify history other than Friends That Break Your Heart.
Taking a leaf out of Assume Form’s book, there’s a joyous, soulful jubilance in many of the cuts in this tracklist. “Coming Back” and “Foot Forward” both use catchy, looped piano lines at the centre of their instrumentals, with the former featuring a flowing, poppy vocal from SZA, while Metro Boomin’ gets a production credit for the latter. At the centre of the tracklist, “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” is a standout favourite, flavoured with tinges of Blake’s early EPs and albums, it chops and changes between moody, atmospheric electronic patters and timid, feather light moments, all the while building to a string-lined cinematic finale. Many of the less ostentatious tracks are nevertheless delicately soulful, with harmonies that hit sweet spots every time they appear.
Blake’s vocals are, predictably, beautiful; Blake’s production is, predictably, meticulous (including that digital artefact at 3:50 on “If I’m Insecure”, which Blake confirms is intentional); and I, predictably, have lapped it up and listened in back-to-back listens. But where Assume Form felt like progress following the fairly baggy pick-n-mix album that came before it, Friends That Break Your Heart feels a little too familiar. Each track goes toe-to-toe with the rest of Blake’s material admirably, but they sit in the middle of the pack and break very little new ground.
In a live stream prior to the album’s release, Blake was asked if he’d consider releasing a hip-hop or acoustic album and his response that he may do as he was ‘running out of ideas’ may’ve been less of a modest throwaway comment than he let on. In Friends That Break Your Heart, James Blake has delivered a strong entrant into his discography that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but the familiarity next to the rest of his work mars the release with the question, ‘Where does James Blake go next?’
7 out of 10