Reviews

James Blake
Friends That Break Your Heart

(Polydor)

4/10

James Blake has forgotten how to finish a song. Once a master of incisiveness, his fragmented melodrama that once so affectingly cross-stitched forward-thinking leftfield electronics with sobering balladry has lost all potency on his fifth studio album. Supposedly a concept record about a particular type of heartbreak, any glimmers of nuance peter out for want of universality, where songs gestate their interesting ideas before forgetting them completely. Friends That Break Your Heart is noteworthy, mostly, for its complete lack of note. 

The title track is Blake’s worst offender. Its fervour summons a gentle storm of acoustic guitar and choral echo, easing his trademark soprano to repeat “In the end it was friends” with a sincerity and strength elsewhere absent, before regaling the album name like a children’s television presenter rushing to close the metaphorical storybook as to not be late for Newsround. The only source of discomfort is how quickly this vulnerability becomes a platitude. The production is pristine and hypnotic through all eleven tracks, but lyrically read one line and it’s easy enough to guess the next. 

Two of the album’s redemptions owe thanks to Blake’s collaborators. SZA’s performance on ‘Coming Back’ is brilliantly jarring, compartmentalised in a way that affectingly caricatures digital separation, while the opposing warmth of Monica Martin on ‘Show Me’ pillows a shared sorrow. The diaristic lead single ‘Say What You Will’ remains a standout, too – a thankful village at the end of a long and flat trail, whose lament for relevance feels misplaced but entirely heartfelt. 

Elsewhere, there’s little attempt at complexity for an album whose themes are so delicately projected. Where Blake’s past albums have sent analogue worlds into orbit, Friends That Break Your Heart instead feels like an office chair spinning into a discernible kaleidoscope of plastic and limbs. But as soon as the magic starts, a co-worker falls into the water cooler.

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