Album Review: James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart

[Polydor/Republic; 2021]

The most difficult losses we experience – some of them strong enough to eclipse the ending of our deepest romances – are the ones in which we lose our dear friendships. It’s not necessarily something that tends to be analysed too deeply in mainstream music, a lot of songs tend to be sassy kiss-offs that are triumphant in their pettiness.

However, singer-songwriter/producer James Blake’s fifth studio album Friends That Break Your Heart is a portrait of processing where he indulges in a bitter analysis of such dissolved friendships. Unlike the joyous transparency and self-discovery of his uneven yet striking previous record Assume Form, where his wounds had somewhat healed due to the wonders of unconditional love, here he finds himself gazing into the hurt caused and inflicted in these platonic relationships. Primarily a traditionally untraditional electronic R&B album, Blake still conjures plenty of tricks in his music but also feels more comfortable in more direct styles that allow the pain to seep through. It only is further testament to how Blake’s personal transparencies and his willingness to let the public into his demons more than ever before has only strengthened the more soulful qualities of his music and voice.

The album begins with “Famous Last Words”, which lays a revealing foundation for the album’s primary themes portraying Blake as exasperated and wounded, on the verge of a falling out with someone. Over production of symbiotic blipping and ominous synths, Blake laments how he “should’ve lost it” over someone’s damaging behaviour and its ramifications. “Ooh, you’re the last / Ooh, you’re the last of my old things / Ooh, the cast from my broken limbs,” he sings. It’s less a biting remark and more steeped in regret that things have come to this point. As a sort of unofficial sequel set in the aftermath, “Life Is Not The Same” mourns the absence of a relationship and how, without that person there, Blake’s perception of the everyday is altered. He details everything he gave (“I played the ones you know / I took you all the way… I wore your favourite clothes / I said the things you’d say”) and all the sacrifices made in vain. With stacked harmonies and minimalist beats, this song – alongside many on this project – put Blake’s voice gloriously at the forefront.

The album continues with “Coming Back” – probably one of the most anticipated songs on this album since the tracklist revealed it features SZA. With a strong piano riff, it shifts into a rumbling and – could one dare say – boppy beat that gives this track a more commercial feel – although idiosyncrasies are still aplenty. The track explores the drawbacks of emotional reaction on both sides and how you can sometimes reveal too much of what you’re feeling to someone’s detriment (“We memorize about the time we spent when you first met me / I put my shit down heavy.”) The dynamic between Blake and SZA is one of two people awkwardly navigating around each other’s vulnerabilities while trying to protect their own, constantly apologising while pushing and pulling the person. With the former’s deeper tone contrasting against the latter’s light and melodically acrobatic delivery, it delivers an ironic chemistry between the two even as they lyrically, through the song, come to odd ends.

While a lot of songs on this album are raw and introspective while maintaining some Blakesian twist in their production, it’s the tracks that are pared back that create very striking moments. The appropriately solemn “Funeral” is a stripped back piano ballad that reflects on disconnection and isolation that is endured because you simply feel you can’t be around people. “I know this feeling all too well / Of being alive at your own funeral,” he intones before begging “Please don’t give up on me.”

Then there’s the collaboration “Show Me” featuring Monica Martin is a fragile ballad about seeing an estranged friend become their best selves and how they wish they could’ve been their best self in the friendship. It’s simultaneously beautiful and gut-wrenching in its ruminations; in how it acknowledges pain but also wishes them well moving forward. It’s a balance that missing on the title track, which remains one of the most conventional tracks Blake has ever released with its classic piano and soaring strings.

There are two particular highlights in the middle of the project such as the dour lead single “Say What You Will” – a song that arises from being too exhausted to fight anymore and being resigned to the emotional bruising inflicted by others. Blake’s voice, in all its many soulful textures, falls into its deepest, despondent baritone as he sings: “I’ve been popular / With all the popular guys / I gave them punchlines / They gave me warning signs.” It alludes to bullying in childhood and the insecurities that develop and remain even in adulthood. This is Blake at his most wearisome and dejected – accepting that people will say what they will because they’re “gonna do it anyway.”

Another highlight, “Foot Forward” is an R&B track with its deceptively bright piano chords and rumbling rhythm. It hints at the complexities that arise from self-doubt, accountability and wanting to face the future even as the past bites at the ankles. The last 30 seconds are a heavenly breakdown where Blake’s manipulated falsetto emphatically sings: “But it’s okay.” In the context of this album, it’s not entirely convincing that the emotions can be summarised so simply, but sometimes keeping up a facade can help it become a reality.

Album finale “If I’m Insecure” is ultimately a love song that has Blake questioning many different aspects of his life alongside his self-perception (“If I’m so happy / How come I’m losing all this sleep? / If I’m the only child / How do I feel like the black sheep?”). However, this contemplation over moody synths eventually transforms into a blossoming chorus of euphoric organ as if the clouds have parted to give a glimpse of an angel. The tone of the song completely changes as he makes the loving proclamation: “And if I’m insecure / How have I been so sure / That I’m gonna care for you / ’Til I am no more.” While it is interesting and frankly, surprising, to conclude the album on a romantic note, it at least possesses a realistic hopefulness to it that implies Blake has freed himself from the mire of misery that these past experiences ensnared him in.

If the album stumbles in its shuffling, the biggest on this album is “Frozen” – a collaboration with rappers JiD and SwayVay – which, when considered as a separate entity, is not a bad song. It somewhat feels like a combination of the wackiness of his debut and the combination of opaqueness and emotion that underlined Overgrown. With screwed vocal samples, sharply plucked strings that ominously transform into a dynamic R&B beat, its biggest sin is simply being an ill-fitting inclusion on this particular album. Although, despite how it compromises the album’s cohesion, this track is bound to stand out for a lot of listeners who crave Blake’s older style of music.

Friends That Break Your Heart is Blake at his most pared-back and unflinching lyrically and could also be considered his most accessible album yet. For some, this dismal balladry might feel a bit too far removed from the experimentally-textured electronics of his first two albums, yet Blake has found a brilliant way to still be unconventional and accessible at the same time. The bravery in baring his soul should always be applauded and respected for the contemplation, and confrontation Blake has gone through has produced one of his most affecting works yet.