In 2016, James Blake released The Colour In Anything, and I skipped my junior year homecoming to go to his show in Royal Oak, an obvious choice. This was on Oct. 8, 2016; I had been listening to Blake for a few years by then, after discovering his haunting voice through “Retrograde” on Overgrown. Five years later, James Blake released Friends That Break Your Heart on Oct. 8, 2021. Looking at his earlier singles and EPs, especially “Air & Lack Thereof” and CMYK, his album came as a shock. Blake’s original appeal was not his heartbreaking songwriting or his trademark voice, but rather his experimental electronic sound embedded with bell sounds and unexpected drops.
A week before the latest album was released, Blake made his way to Detroit at The Fillmore. Maybe it’s tradition for him to play at least one techno track at Detroit concerts, or maybe this is something he does no matter where he goes, but it made me wonder if there was some electronic project in the making, or if he had completely moved on from the style, only revisiting it at live shows. At the beginning of the pandemic, Blake took to Instagram Live a few times to play some original songs and covers with just his voice and piano. His voice was poignant enough for thousands of people to tune in and feel connected, if only through the comment section. Perhaps this was foreshadowing the toned-down simplicity that Blake has become more drawn to.
Friends That Break Your Heart’s goal seems similar to Lorde’s with her recent release, Solar Power. Blake said of his album, “I genuinely want to make music for sitting by the pool.” Maybe after a traumatic year, musicians do not want to experiment but instead draw themselves back into simplicity, into some glimmer of happiness. Rather than going back to the heartbreaking lyrics that seeped of isolation, Blake reflected on the year of isolation in a different sense: Who remains? What friendships hold true?
“Famous Last Words” ponders the loss of a friend, wondering if things can be mended, if this person is worth holding on to, or if it is time to let go; the last of your high school friends, whom you keep drifting further and further apart from, “you’re the last of my old things.” The opener gives a tease into the reflective lyrics that twine through the duration of the album.
The first feature comes in with SZA’s presence on “Coming Back.” This track attempts to revive the previously mentioned friendship; James wishes for his friend to forget what he said because it hurts too much. SZA’s entrance comes in like wings spreading, and the track opens itself, the beat underlying the duo, moving them into a morphed ending as the two fight against this stay and go.
On “Foot Forward,” Blake collaborates with Metro Boomin for the most uplifting track of the album. Against the backdrop of a synthy piano sample and cutting bass notes, the lyrics have a sting of hope and gratitude. Blake finally understands that the back-and-forth of this friendship will come to an end, and all that he can do is put his best foot forward.
The collaborations throughout the album feel much more intentional than those on Assume Form. “Show Me” with Monica Martin feels like an intimate peek into a conversation between the two.
Friends That Break Your Heart is the calmest of Blake’s work, and it is hard to tell if that’s a good thing. When the world becomes calmer, maybe we will get a return to Blake’s roots, but for now, we can just sit under the sun and savor this one.
Daily Arts Writer Katy Trame can be reached at email@example.com.