Just two years on from his last album, post-dubstep pioneer James Blake has again reinvented himself. Worlds apart from 2021’s ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’, the Grammy-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer’s sixth album returns to the underground roots of his Hessle Audio, Hemlock and R&S Records days. Nodding to his earliest CMYK releases, the production quality on ‘Playing Robots Into Heaven’ is consistently inventive and hard-hitting – even in its quieter moments.
While album opener ‘Asking To Break’ shares similarities with his self-titled 2011 debut and 2013’s ‘Overgrown’, particularly its lo-fi haziness and thunder crashes, the icy intimacy of those records is quickly replaced with propulsive beats that could do some serious damage. ‘Loading’ balances an emotional core with eventual ecstasy, as pulsing drums coalesce with somber organ chords. How the Blake manipulates his voice remains thrilling 14 years into his career. It’s also telling that there are no guest features across these 11 tracks, unlike 2019’s hip-hop-leaning ‘Assume Form’ which hosted verses from André 3000, Travis Scott and Rosalía.
As ever, Blake’s singular vision results in electrifying and innovative electronic music. ‘Tell Me’ is full of interesting contrasts; as Blake sings “tell me if it’s worth waking up for”, a gradual build-up pays off massively thanks to a synth explosion and all-out warehouse rave in the second half. Though more underrated, the gospel-led glitches of ‘He’s Been Wonderful’ are equally satisfying, while ‘Big Hammer’ chops a Ragga Twins sample over a dubstep breakdown.
Whilst keeping one foot on the dancefloor, a more mellow sonic palette signifies a different direction for the album’s second half. Co-written by Pharrell Williams, ‘I Want You To Know’ finds cathartic beauty in Blake’s light and airy vocal. An artist who has long known when to pull back and show restraint, ‘Night Sky’s woodwind section floats away like clouds rather than climbing to a big drop. ‘Fall Back’, with its house beat and Four Tet-style drum machines, similarly stays grounded despite its near-explosive finale.
The album’s closing third, contrastingly, hones in on Blake’s raw and reflective side. Atop ‘Fire The Editor’s atmospheric soundscape and twinkling keys, he demonstrates real emotional growth, analysing how he’s overcome a fear of failure: “If I see him again, best believe me, we’ll be having words.” Closer ‘If You Can Hear Me (Ad Astra)’, built on a melancholic piano line, is one of Blake’s most affecting songs to date. As it moves into a cinematic, Interstellar-style arrangement, the album ends as per its title, as ominous waves of sound move skywards.
- Release date: September 8
- Record label: Polydor