with James Blake
Words by Skye Butchard
Image by Toby Dexter
When I was a kid, this funny thing would happen to my hearing. It occurred seemingly at random, when I was walking to school, or playing at a friend’s, or reading before bed. Suddenly, everyone’s voices would speed up and stutter. My skin would go hot. I couldn’t make sense of conversations. I would ask my brother, or my friend, or my mum if they heard it too, and they’d look at me with worry. It was me that was speaking fast, they’d say. Confused and embarrassed, I’d start to cry, especially early on. Everything would fog up. It felt like I was about to die.
After a few years, in my early teens, I managed to keep my cool when the noises would speed up. It wasn’t just noise, though. Even in silence, an eerie, intangible panic would be there in my bones, and I’d stay still to avoid giving myself away. I now know those noises to be a kind of small seizure broadly described as Alice in Wonderland syndrome, to simplify the neurology massively. A lot of children get it around five or six while they’re ill. In small episodes, you could liken it to déjà vu. A destabilising moment. Mine never left me; instead, it clings to me as an early symptom of a panic attack. While many feel as though they are struggling to breathe, I get voices going too fast. Processing anything becomes impossible. I stopped trying to explain those weird noises to people early on. They’d only think I was going crazy. Like a lot of people with anxiety and depression, I felt totally isolated in being able to describe how huge those feelings were. How could they understand?
At the start of last year, someone told me they understood. It was instant relief, like I’d been seen for the first time, in a small but important way. That person was James Blake, with his single ‘If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead’. As a producer, Blake has been doing incredible things with his voice for nearly a decade, splicing, contorting and shifting his haunting, soulful vocal into different shapes. Doing so has often led to incredible experimental ballads, but has also frequently led to his music being boxed in as cold and insular, lacking the warmth an untouched vocal performance might offer. Despite being a huge fan, I have been guilty of pigeonholing Blake’s music in this way. I listened to his debut to drown in my own loneliness, as he seemed to with that disembodied vocal.
‘If the Car…’ felt different, though. In those fractured vocal clips, Blake seemed to explain my own anxiety better than I could. His voice is at once distant and too close; the words flick away before you can properly take them in, while odd catches of breath feel loud and scratchy. Slowly, the vocal cuts start to reveal a pattern, and by the end of the song, you can find his voice in there, supported by a minimal beat and centring synth chords.
“If the car beside you moves ahead
As much as it feels as though you’re dead
You’re not going backwards”
I needed to hear those words a year ago, perfectly filtered in a language it felt like only I knew. My depression had returned at the peak of my final year Masters course, stalling my progress. All my course mates were applying for jobs. I was mostly just sleeping and trying to stay alive. My panic attacks had returned too. It had been so long since my last that during a busy bar shift at my part-time job, I thought the humidity of the room was going to kill us, deliriously stumbling, hearing the voices that moved too fast.
A few blurred weeks later, hidden away in my room with the curtains drawn, James Blake told me I was okay, that he understood.
Assume Form is by no means the first-time James Blake has explored dissociation, depression and isolation in his music. The suffocating sub-bass on his breakout single ‘Limit to Your Love’ made it feel like he was already being swallowed by it. Nearly ten years later though, we hear him fighting it. The album opens with him reflecting on all this time – “going through the motions all my life”, he sighs while chords wander around, struggling to find a home. “When you touch me I wonder what you could want with me”. Then, Rage Almighty’s sunken spoken word interjects.
“It feels like a thousand pounds of weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin”
Blake excavates it all – the immediate sting of a moment of disconnection, the constant heaviness, the weightlessness, the exhausting apathy of it all. I’ve been here drifting with Blake before, soothed by a familiar pain being carved into something beautiful. But this is the first time he’s challenged me to get out of that funk.
“I will assume form, I'll leave the ether
I will assume form, I'll be out of my head this time
I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable
I couldn't tell you where my head goes either”
Here, on the chorus of the title track where this first clicks into place, as the key sways from minor to major in a woozy grasp for stability. Those who have lived with depression will likely be familiar with this feeling of formlessness, of being removed from your reality, especially your loved ones. Artists like Elliott Smith, Arthur Russell, and Nina Simone have explored this powerfully, emulating that feeling for listeners who don’t understand and providing comfort and connection for those who do. This album, through timing, circumstance, and of course, the artistry, is the first time I’ve felt motivated to leave that soothing darkness because of music.
Blake’s mission statement, to be touchable and reachable by his partner, colours the whole album with a positive forward momentum. In many ways, the album acts as a personal declaration of his love, and how it has shaped him. The unabashed romance of “Into the Red” and “I’ll Come Too” bask in it, soaking up details and stories only he and his partner could know. And still, the album remains universal, demonstrating how positive social interactions can support us; it is no surprise that many of the production styles he incorporates are indebted to the long list of collaborators. He effortlessly pivots from widescreen trap with Metro Boomin and Travis Scott, modern flamenco with Rosalía, and futuristic soul with Moses Sumney, surrounding himself with others, stepping out of his isolation for the benefit of his mental state as well as his music. Even on the songs where he doubts his positive state of mind, he looks to others for reassurance. Andre 3000’s stunning, taut verse on ‘Where’s the Catch?’ is a mastery of tension, exploring the ways we can convince ourselves that our happiness is false, that our confidence is unearned. ‘Everything’s Rose’ he sings; it’s worth noting that he famously told us what roses really smell like over a decade ago. The pain of still being caught in that cycle of doubt hits hard, but what hits harder is both men finding reassurance in having felt the same things.
Blake seems aware of his potential to offer his fans not just beauty, but emotional support. He speaks to us directly,
“Now you can feel everything
Doesn't it seem more natural?
Doesn't it see you float?
… Doesn't it seem much warmer
Just knowing the sun will be out?”
He offers these thoughts in a cooing falsetto, sensitive and blissful. He urges us to ‘power on’, to ‘drop a pin on the mood that you’re in’.
The penultimate track, ‘Don’t Miss It’, might be his most urgent plea. He’s returned to his depressive state, falling into the comfort of not having to try. A reality of chronic depression is that the longer you live with it, the more it seems part of you. The dark parts of your brain are there for so long that they become easy to live with – often easier than pushing them away. Blake explores this powerfully, frankly analysing his own shortcomings, and his withdrawal from his surroundings. The voices have sped up again, his vocal wavering on each note, words flashing past. ‘I leave in the middle of the night’, he whispers, ‘but I’d miss it’. That ‘but’ might not be here if not for the love he’s found that’s connecting him to reality, giving him the energy to try. And that helps him enough to get out of this episode. By the end of the song, he’s speaking to us directly again, urging us not to miss our own depressive states when we make it to the other song.
He ends the album with the achingly beautiful ‘Lullaby for my Insomniac’, another use of music as medicine. There’s a quiet intimacy to the swelling synth chords, delicate vocal and choral harmonies that colour the track, only amplified by the lyrics which let his partner know that her insomnia isn’t her fault, that if she can’t get there, he’ll stay up too: “I’d rather see everything as a blur tomorrow if you do”. On an album that captures the light and positivity she’s given him, it’s only fitting that it ends with him comforting her, using their connection to give her some solace
Blake’s nuanced, brave and genuinely helpful approach to writing about his mental health has thankfully earned a lot of positive attention. But too frequently, his efforts, and the efforts of others, are written off as self-obsessed, overdramatic and cloying. In short, he’s a “sad boy”. It’s a term he’s criticised on Twitter, writing that it is emblematic of larger shame given to men who attempt to open-up about their emotions. Those assigned male at birth are indirectly told to mask their emotions or else face ridicule. Perhaps that is why his work affects me so deeply.
Blake is one of many artists who have taught me that intimacy and expression have no gender. He’s right there with IDLES, whose angry political album Joy as An Act Of Resistance uses a deeply personal story of its lead singer coping with the miscarriage of his child as its centrepiece. Surrounded by piercing songs about male violence and toxic masculinity, what it truly should mean to be masculine becomes clearer. He stands with Perfume Genius, whose dark excavations on queerness and body image made me look inward in my early teens. And he reminds of Octo Octa, whose gorgeously danceable minimal house music needs sound alone to reach out and hug its listener.
All of these artists deserve to be thanked individually, but right now, I’m thanking James Blake, whose music has made me more secure in a tricky part of my life. To write it down at first seems silly, especially as a journalist who’s been taught not to insert my own voice into pieces. But what’s the point of an authoritative voice when covering a topic like music, which at its best, is a personal conversation between just you and the artist?