Blake in Bloom: Assume Form and Mental Health

Freya Doggett 7 March 2019

The stigmatisation of male mental health issues has become rife to the extent that, particularly among famous figures, unhealthy coping mechanisms are the common method of escape. With a career spanning from eminent collaborations to years of depression, James Blake has arrived at a point in his life that is perfectly mirrored in his latest album: Assume Form.

Hitting fame at the raw age of 21, Blake’s mental health deteriorated to the point that he experienced suicidal thoughts. In a 2016 interview following the release of his third album The Colour in Anything, he likened the early stages of his career to biological monitoring: ‘You feel as if you are in a petri dish environment where people are looking in and checking on your progress,’ he said. ‘A lot of people who enter show-business at 21 or younger are frozen at that point and it’s really only up to them to defrost themselves.’ Assume Form, then, can be seen as Blake’s thawing point that follows his earlier, more chilling albums suffused by background depression. Harmonically warmer, it follows his refreshed yet veracious musical expression that coincides with his move to Los Angeles, where he currently lives with his British girlfriend, Jameela Jamil, an actress, model and activist. Her influence on his music is undeniable, emboldening him to talk about his feelings openly and honestly, without allowing fear to permeate his mind.

Ethereal and distant, the secretive interiority of Blake’s earlier albums embodies the incarcerated nature of preventing expression of one’s festering thoughts. Assume Form, on the contrary, represents an encouragement of digging out deep-rooted issues that are entangled within the labyrinthine mind. With a sense of tactility, Blake’s feelings are far more present, as Assume Form describes: ‘I will be touchable; I will be reachable’. There is a tangible dopamine present in the music that not only displays Blake’s newfound contentment but also reaches out to its listeners. Certain tracks within the album demonstrate in particular Blake’s refreshed outlook: the more expectable and comfortable chord progressions in Power On and Can’t Believe The Way We Flow express a sense of personal comfort within. Similar in ambience, boasting an idyllic union of the two extremes of the sonic spectrum, Don’t Miss It entwines a distant high-pitched trill with a persuasive yet minimalist beat that throbs reassuringly beneath the main vocal line.

Pitchfork, the habitual point of reference for amateurs of music for an educated and highly accurate critique of music, unfortunately went down in my estimations upon reading its review of Assume Form. Its rather charged description of the work as ‘sad boy music’, to which Blake responded with a long tweet arguing that such labels are damaging, displays the superficiality of its analysis. Not solely responding via Twitter, however, Blake has countered this comment musically too, taking the criticism on board (and merits admiration for doing so) throughout Assume Form. Then, Pitchfork goes on to mention a ‘suffocating seriousness that runs through the singer and producer’s fourth album’; yet this is his most light-hearted, love-filled production yet. Mile High and I’ll Come Too are prime examples of this more buoyant expression, and we are left to question why his music needs irony or humour when neither have appeared in his output to date. If the evolution of an artist’s career depends on the views of critics, it crumbles the strength of his uniqueness and integrity.

Blake’s battle with depression in previous years has led many of his listeners to naturally associate his mental state with his creation. And can we blame them? The human instinct to link creative expressions to the context in which they were made has become normalised and to the extent that content and context share an ostensibly indestructible bond. However, Blake importantly refutes the common coupling of mental health being so integral to creative productivity. ‘There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius. I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process, too.’

In an age identified by the inherent lack of innovation in music and sampling of previous work running through as the structural framework upon which most artists base their alleged creativity, Blake creates an unexpected combination of genres which works effortlessly. Assume Form depicts his softening shell and more welcoming attitude towards expression of emotions, be they optimistic or undesirable. His social and musical response to his turbulent past proves an important step forward in the evolution of popular culture, gradually disintegrating the stigma surrounding toxic masculinity.