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Since the release of his eponymous debut album in 2011, singer-songwriter and producer James Blake has revolutionized the sound of the music world. His idiosyncratic sound, steeped in experimental sound effects and breaking down genre boundaries, has influenced artists and production studios big and small all over the world.
Ten years later, in the fall of 2021, James Blake released his fifth album, titled “Friends That Break Your Heart.” In this article we will take a closer look at said album. It is about dealing with self-doubt, interpersonal dependencies and detachment processes up to the discovery of a new way of life.
James Blake humorously opens the album with a title called "Famous Last Words." In it he describes a situation in which the lyrical self feels an urgent and at the same time deeply uncomfortable necessity: finally having to break free from a long-failed relationship, but not yet having taken the decisive step.
Your own insecurities, a deep dismay at how the other person behaved, and amazement at your own inability to act characterize the lyrics of the track. Musically, the vocals dominate, the synths and strings used in a minimalist way (by Blake standards) underline the big picture. Thematically, the song leads into the following tracks, and gives hints that will become more concrete later in the course of the album.
In the second track, Blake takes up the theme of the first song and becomes even more specific in his statements:
So if you loved me so much Why'd you go? (Why'd you go?) Keep yourself back Keep on lying, oh I can only be what I am
It's about the desperate disguise of one's own personality to the point of self-abandonment, with the background of constantly wanting to please another person. And also the realization that this is of no use is contained in "I can only be what I am". However, as is so often the case in such situations, one's own irresponsibility is mixed up with accusations against the other person.
We both swam out to sea You lost me willingly But that was yesterday (That was yesterday) You knew it would get dark You made sure I would need you in every way
We are talking about created dependencies and a feeling of having been let down by the other person.
In "Coming Back" you get a deeper impression of the two positions that were suggested in the previous song - with SZA lending her voice to the opposite perspective. A snippet of her part includes the following:
Your first mistake was wanting me when you know I wasn't ready You put that shit down heavy, couldn't let you regret me Remember lies around the time we spent when you first met me I put my shit down heavy, couldn't let you forget me, mmh (no, no)
The previously one-sided description of the relationship between the two now gains depth and makes it clear that relationship conflicts are usually not the responsibility of just one person. This track addresses the metaphorical glasses through which we view emotional experiences, and how these glasses can often warp reality.
The track "Funeral" plays with the image of being alive at your own funeral. In terms of sound, it is—by Blake standards—very minimalistic, effectively bringing the lyrics to the fore. Said lyrics deal with nothing more or less than life, death, and the question of the meaning of the whole spectacle.
I hold my ear to a shell I hear somethin' that no one can sell […] And I know this feeling too well (Too well) Of being alive at your own funeral Goin', "Don't give up on me" […| Please, I'll be the best I can be
Even if it remains unclear why these feelings arise, one possibility is that it has something to do with James Blake's artistic success. Perhaps people no longer perceive him as an artist who is constantly evolving, but rather write him off as a great who has already made it to the top.
This results in the song's central feeling of not being noticed and feeling isolated or on the sidelines. "Funeral" also takes up central questions about one's own value and addresses the issue of one's own demands on oneself and one's need to continue to be noticed—for example here:
I wanna be heard if I can't be seen
For the album's fifth song, Blake teamed up with rappers JID and SwaVay. In terms of sound, it is noticeable that the individual voices partially merge into one another and blur together, because Blake has worked with voice distortions, especially during the part changes. The song is also dynamic due to several tempo changes and sound breaks and is characterized by the use of additional, diverse sound effects.
I've been losing all of my mind They tell me I'm too hard to find Tell me, am I? […] Body's so stooped, you'd think that I'd been frozen […] By my wall I, I feel it all (You'd think that I'd been frozen) Yes, I won't lie, just come closer (You'd think that I'd been frozen)
The lyrics continue the theme of the previous song, "Funeral," as Blake confronts others' perceptions of him as frozen, aloof, and MIA. At the same time, with “By my wall I, I feel it all,” he underlines that this isolation affects him and does not protect him from vulnerability. The general mood of the song can be described as rather somber, expansive and interwoven.
Yes, I won't lie Just come closer
It seems as if Blake reflects the sometimes very chaotic complexity of life in "Frozen" and at the same time asks his listeners to deal with it—in order to be able to understand himself better in the end.
"I'm So Blessed You’re Mine" is a looser, less-tangible piece on Blake's album, which nevertheless impresses musically with well-structured parts. These combine to form a whole from a gently sung intro, extraordinary "drops" (actually, James Blake's music needs its own vocabulary), beautifully layered vocals and a repetitive use of samples.
The use of the violins, which can be heard towards the end of the piece, is particularly interesting. Howling, slightly squeaking and yet harmonious, they descend the pitch and are somewhat reminiscent of the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's classic film “Psycho." In terms of content, the piece remains open and short-lived, and is thus also reminiscent of the rapid development and dismantling of some relationships, which is taken up thematically in the following track.
It was built, in a day So it fell, in a day […] And it's okay, I know I'll be replaced A bitter aftertaste, but it's not that bad It's okay, there's nothing to explain Only yesterday, you weren't so sad
"Foot Forward" is about potentially fast-paced relationships and the realization that one's position will soon be replaced by someone else. At the same time, the attitude on this track is no longer as reproachful as at the beginning of the album, but mainly characterized by acceptance.
It was supposed to be like that and yet: The disappointment that I wasn't the chosen person myself—but only a part of the way to someone else—becomes clear. Injury and acceptance alternate repetitively in the chorus with "who's next" and "and it's okay".
I heard you can show love It's just not come out for me I heard you had a sweet way That I have yet to see I wish you'd show me
In this song, too, James Blake takes up the theme of the previous one in order to deepen it further. Again, the disappointment is described at not having been the chosen person for someone else. Now the narrative is expanded to include the aspect that a former partner is happier with someone else - and the apparently more coherent new relationship means that this person can now fully develop his potential. The verse "I wish you'd show me" repeated in the chorus illustrates this contrast.
In the bridge, sung together by Monica Martin and James Blake, it becomes clear that this wish and the disappointment that it cannot be fulfilled are mutually felt:
Cause there was nothing stopping you before And nothing I'd have loved more Than seeing you at your best And I waited 'til me eyеs were sore 'Causе there's nothing I'd have wanted more Than to see you at your best
With "Say What You Will" James introduces one last major chapter on the album: the return to oneself. This track is about the feeling, which is certainly familiar to many people, of being in a worse position compared to others. In the accompanying music video, James Blake, in collaboration with musician (and Billie Eilish's big brother) Finneas, presents this in a very exaggerated and humorous way: Finneas is portrayed as much more successful, sporty and attractive, which Blake constantly suffers from.
James Blake draws the line with a long, very high note and the consistent repetition of the song title “Say What You Will.” It is about not measuring yourself against the success of others, or making your own value dependent on the judgment of others, but instead finding peace with yourself. Acceptance and contentment show the way out of the unfortunate trap of constant comparisons caused by oneself and others. This is also underlined with a quote at the end of the music video:
Comparison is the thief of joy.Theodore Roosevelt
“Lost Angel Nights” is a calm, harmonious, superbly produced song on the album. The lyrical content is ambiguous and can be broken down into two different readings: on the one hand as a reflection of the negative sides of Blake's previous artistic success, on the other hand as a reflection of a relationship that was harmful to him. A mixed form of both possible interpretations, in which the former is personified, is also conceivable
And so you slept all day The world doesn't wait And it kept on going, it kept on going around us We had so much going for us And I was losing my place And in my place, a thousand imitations rose up And I hope it's not too late to make up for all those
At the same time, there's something quite forgiving and accepting about the track, which doesn't apply to the lyrics to "in my place", which are punctuated by dissonant, signal-like tones or angry shouts. James Blake's talent for translating sung material into sound and thus deepening its meaning is once again evident in the passage “imitations.”
In “Favorite Worst Cast,” a music podcast by Eric Blache and Jan Klefisch, the song is also described as the "warmest blanket in the world". Quite coherent, if you consider that this song mostly ends with negative experiences in an accepting way and also implements this in terms of sound. All in all a very interesting song, about which certainly not everything has been said yet.
The album's titular track is a mellow, minimally produced song that features James Blake's vulnerability. With a tender, slightly brittle and yet determined voice, he addresses the pain that can accompany the breakup of deep-rooted friendships:
And as many loves that have crossed my path In the end, it was friends (3x) It was friends who broke my heart […] only love can break you More the more you care And all, and all in love is fair But its not fair.
At the same time, in the last two lines, Blake does away with general advice that has turned out to be inapplicable and hopeless. His own efforts to show himself open and vulnerable despite his actual, probably rather closed nature become clear:
And I've pushed myself to be vulnerable And then slept with one eye wide All that pain and nothing gained in the end In the end it was friends it was friends who broke my heart
This gives the impression that this song is also about reflecting on yourself and trusting what feels right for you personally. At the same time, not everything is within one's own control, as becomes clear here:
Well, fair dues, nobody prepares you And nobody's prepared, nobody's prepared
Once again, James Blake succeeds in portraying the complex difficulties of interpersonal relationships and the search for one's own solution. To a certain extent, the track can also be understood as a junction where the previously presented, loose ends of the previous songs come together again.
The album's closing track is "If I'm Insecure," which deals with two opposing emotional states: security and insecurity, or trust and doubt. The latter are taken up in the stanzas in the form of questions such as:
If I'm the only child How do I feel like the black sheep?[…] If I'm loved unconditionally How's this condition so unique, so unique?
At the same time, the content in the bridge is characterized by a state of trust and acceptance. The relationship James's song alludes to is felt as a haven of mental calm and a place of devotion where all doubting thoughts can come to rest:
When you're with me I feel like I'm embracing it And when you cry (When you cry) I know that you've been saving me (from me)
In the chorus it becomes clear that potentially everything can be questioned, whereby it is also about—in my interpretation—overcoming insecurities and making peace with the imperfect. Musically, the song, despite the contradictions, is unifying, harmonious, solemn and is designed in Blake's style with great attention to detail. With "If I'm Insecure" the album comes to a round, coherent, final and at the same time forward-looking end. In an Apple Music interview, James Blake described his song as follows:
"I like to go out on something either where it’s all harmonies or it just feels huge. This is the latter. It’s an apocalyptic love song—the world is ending, but you’re in love, so it’s all right. Which maybe captures where we are as a society in 2021, so perhaps I’ll come to think of this record as one big externalisation of my COVID experience, but that wasn’t the original intention. I make a load of music and then eventually realise, ‘Oh, yes, roughly, it was about this.’ "
One has to speak of an outstandingly high level of the album. It follows a thematically stringent red thread and takes sufficient time to delve deeply into the general topic of human relationship difficulties and its facets - such as vulnerability, change, self-doubt and acceptance. These are boldly taken up from different perspectives, illuminated, and also constantly further developed: From the beginning of the album to the end there is a clear arc of development and an extremely organic progression of reflection.
Musically, "Friends That Break Your Heart" is also very well thought out and meticulously polished. James Blake's vocals are more prominent than on other albums. Both in terms of content and subject matter, Blake knows how to express himself with the help of his piano and numerous, comprehensive sound effects - in a way that can hardly be found with other artists.
Anyone who wants to experience James Blake and his latest album live at a concert can look forward to his Europe-wide "Friends That Break Your Heart Tour". At the beginning of May 2022 he will appear in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main. You can find tickets here, among other places. Travelers can also see him in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland, France, Belgium, and many other places. You can get all tour dates here.
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Originally published on July 14, 2022, updated on July 14, 2022