In May 2018, English musician James Blake posted a note on his Twitter page, critiquing the label "sad boy" often used on his music or any man who expressed male vulnerability or emotional complexity.
"I've always found that expression unhealthy and problematic when used to describe men just openly talking about their feelings," he said, becoming a de facto advocate on questioning the social stigmatisation of mental health issues.
That post accompanied the release of the single Don't Miss It, which is the penultimate song on his fourth album, Assume Form. The song is a piano dirge, stripped down yet altered ever so slightly that you feel the unease as his voice keens: "When you stop being a ghost in a shell/And everybody keeps saying you look well."
It's "a classic combination of depression and anxiety" brought on by life on the road, and Assume Form represents a reckoning of sorts, a coming to terms with his inner demons, and the process which leads to reconciliation.
It is also a love letter to his partner, Jameela Jamil, the actress from the TV series The Good Place, who has provided solace and stability for Blake.
The opener and title track is a gorgeously sparse ballad, at first a smattering of romantic ivories, before it gives way to mournful synths and clattering, as if he is indeed slowly materialising and laying down anchor. "I will assume form, I'll leave the ether/I will assume form, I'll be out of my head this time," he promises.
Getting out of his head also means reaching out to collaborators. In Mile High, Blake alternates vocal duties with rapper Travis Scott, accompanied by a woozy riff care of producer Metro Boomin. The song mimics airborne circularity, the machinery of fame and success which feeds on itself. "We just be mile high clubbin'/I'm on a thousand miles runnin'," Scott drawls, to which Blake reminds: "Don't wanna see me by yourself."
This is followed by Tell Them, a treatise on a one-night-stand, and the concomitant fear of intimacy and commitment. Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and Blake play both sides of one's conscience over handclaps and stuttering beats: The former wheezes about how "a fact betrays the way you feel", while the latter drones, "I didn't plan to stay long."
You can hear Blake venturing into brighter climes. He opens up in the moving ballad Into The Red, where he sings clearly: "She's no traitor/I've got no chaser…/For a joint account/She gave me everything that she had left." The music opens with strings, then moves on to a loop of curious, micro piano plinks. He is learning to trust, and you can almost hear him realising he does not need to hide anymore.
There are two unadulterated love songs which prove Blake is comfortable in his skin. Co-produced by Oneohtrix Point Never and built upon a sample from the R&B group The Manhattans, Can't Believe The Way We Flow is Blake completely at peace, feeling higher than high. The swooning pop doozy I'll Come Too continues the doo-wop romancing. He's found his La La Land, at last.