With Friends That Break Your Heart, James Blake leaves no room for ambiguity. His feelings are crystal clear.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Lyrical Dexterity 5 /5
⏱⏱⏱⏱ Longevity 4/5
🎧🎧🎧🎧 Production 4/5
James Blake is known for his ethereal vocals, cryptically introspective lyrics, and experimental production. Whether on his own works or featuring on projects including Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, and most recently Dave’s We’re All Alone In This Together, Blake has proved to be one of the best producers among his peers.
Throughout his first three albums he seamlessly moved between electronic songs with looped lyrics like ‘I Never Learnt to Share,’ ‘Digital Lion,’ and ‘I Hope My Life,’ and songs like ‘DLM,’ ‘The Colour in Anything,’ and ‘Give Me My Month’ that solely showcased Blake and his impressive voice. His last album Assume Form seemed to find the middle ground between these stark contrasts resulting in a mostly mid-tempo project. Friends That Break Your Heart shows Blake at once returning to already mastered sounds, and exploring new ones.
The opener ‘Famous Last Words’ cinematically paints the picture of someone finally accepting that a relationship is over. Blake’s airy vocals acknowledge the complications that come with this, “and I can’t believe I’m still talkin’ about you, that feeling, I should have lost it […] by now.” The disbelief is soon interrupted by an acceptance of the freeing feeling of said relationship ending, “you’re the last of my old things, the cast from my broken limbs.” This theme sets the precedent for the album.
Within the first three songs Blake moves us between tempos, from heavy to energetic, and lands at track four, ‘Funeral.’ His vulnerability shines through as he confesses, “I know this feeling too well of being alive at your own funeral,” and pleads “don’t give up on me, please, I’ll be the best I can be.” Blake’s combination of stripped back production, and lamentation almost sound like an elegy.
Blake’s rap influences can be heard in this album more than any other. The album has beats that any seasoned rapper could easily glide over, especially ‘Coming Back’ featuring SZA, and as Blake always chooses the right rappers for his projects, this is exactly what JID and Swavay do on ‘Frozen.’
The standout feature though is definitely ‘Show Me’ featuring Monica Martin. It explores self doubt and longing for love to be given to you the same way it has been given to others: “I hope the person after gets all that you held from me. They get to be a fresh start while I am another casualty. I wish you’d show me.” Blake and Martin delicately sing their verses over a kick drum that runs steadily underneath like a heartbeat. They meet at the choruses to showcase their synergy. This traditional duet is unanticipated, but appreciated.
‘Say What You Will’ also cements Blake as the singer-songwriter we love. Each listen unlocks a new meaning, melody, or harmony. It’s one of his most transparent songs to date which makes it so powerful: “I’m okay, no I can drive myself. I’ve been sobered by my time on the shelf, […] I’ve been ostracised like a comet racing through an empty sky – so say what you will.” The song is about accepting one’s position, in this case it is Blake’s role in the music industry, and by this part of the song the journey seems complete.
Although it is the penultimate song, ‘Friends That Broke My Heart’ perfectly encapsulates the perceived intention of the album. Blake solemnly sings, “as many loves that have crossed my path, […] in the end it was friends who broke my heart.” I am almost certain that this is the first time he has put a guitar at the forefront of a song, and there is something unexpectedly heartwarming about the idea of Blake not only broaching a new topic lyrically, but using different instruments to do so.
Despite being dark and heavy at times the album’s takeaway message is positive. Being able to create a project reflecting explicitly on a clearly painful topic is evidence of freedom and growth. Blake recently commented that “friendship breakups don’t carry the same level of acknowledged gravitas,” as romantic ones. With this album he has made sure that this is no longer the case.
By Kiah Olowu