Album Review: James Blake – Playing Robots Into Heaven

[UMG/Polydor; 2023]

When the 2000s rolled around, electronic music producers really began to dive into the infinite pool of sound combinations available to them. Many phenomenal albums were released as a result, which manifested an interpolation of the genre into a much larger listening demographic. They were also championed by the countless hipster music review sites who breathlessly lauded their efforts with the same gusto typically reserved for the most impressive indie rock output. 

Trailblazing artists like Caribou, Four Tet, Prefuse-73, The Field, Burial and The Knife not only dropped classic after classic throughout the 2000s, but they also birthed entire subgenres that would be celebrated and then swiftly co-opted by hundreds of copycat producers. Thus, by the close of the aughts it was becoming increasingly difficult for electronic artists to impress listeners. Fans who were more predisposed to leftfield electronic music were especially finicky, as they found themselves  increasingly underwhelmed by the artists whom critics were quick to label the ‘next big thing’.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the actual next big thing: a fresh-faced 21-year-old British producer named James Blake. In the summer of 2010, the producer dropped an EP called CMYK on the venerable R&S label, and with this four-track release, he slaked the thirst of even the most discerning listeners and immediately established himself as the new overlord of the evolving post-dubstep scene. Blake’s sound was a heady mix of severely warped vocals, both his own and those of recognizable R&B artists like Aaliyah, Brandy and Kelis, crumbling and off-kilter rhythms that stumbled along and utilized a whole arsenal of glitches and hand percussion, woozy synth lines that shifted and evolved as they progressed, and a whole lot of negative space. 

It was during the following winter that he truly came into his own though, joining the ranks of the earlier-mentioned electronic music dignitaries when he dropped his self-titled debut album. The sounds he explored on earlier releases had coalesced into something breathtakingly beautiful on the album, streamlining his approach by focusing more on classical piano lines, mostly his own pitched vocals, and beats and rhythms more suited to the bedroom than the dance floor. And this time, he was flirting with full-on verse-chorus-verse structures, with some even approaching traditional ballads, while still employing copious amounts of negative spaces to cement this peculiar brand of sound as his own. 

This made James Blake a bona fide star, and it’s no stretch to state that his sound was instrumental in shaping and coloring much of the electronic music to follow during the 2010s. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the 2020s, Blake would go on to release four more albums; the first two great if not quite classics, and the second two comparatively milquetoast. 

So the prospect of Blake’s new release, Playing Robots Into Heaven, has likely been met with a certain amount of trepidation, with fans wondering if this time Blake will finally loop back to his edgier, dubstep-informed sounds, or at least distance himself from the tepid singer-songwriter or ambient territories he’s explored with his most recent output.  

If lead single “Big Hammer” is any indication, then it would seem he has done both. Kind of. With its lurching, trap-informed beat buttressed by a slew of skittering rhythms, the track unfolds  patiently, building in intensity until chopped up sampled dancehall vocals enter the fray roughly halfway through the track. Foreboding and aggressive, with plenty of hard-hitting sub-bass, it’s a certified banger, and it is most definitely miles removed from his recent releases. In fact, if I’d heard the track without the context, I would’ve pinned a dozen or more other producers as its creator, likely starting with Jamie xx, before giving up on guesses.

Since the song’s arrival in June, the online reaction has been split down the center, with some celebrating the song as a progression from his earlier sounds, while others find it boring and uninspired, with many struggling, as I have, to locate Blake anywhere in its DNA. It’s a curious lead single, but ultimately proves to be a bit of a red herring, as little else on the album sounds much like it. 

Whereas “Big Hammer” essentially obscures the identity of its creator, second single “Loading” proves far more indicative of Blake’s modus operandi on Playing Robots into Heaven. The track begins with a gentle church organ melody, and after 10 seconds, when Blake begins to croon the song’s central mantra, “Wherever I go / I’m only as good as my mind / which is only good if you’re mine,” we know exactly who we’re hearing. And it’s beautiful. The track is soon joined by a sped-up amen break and all sorts of clunks and clatter, and the sound is undeniably more reminiscent of the much-loved post-dubstep productions of his R&S days. It exemplifies one of the producer’s greatest strengths, as he balances the pathos behind his tender pleas with a rhythmic backbone capable of slaying the dance floor. 

While the song undoubtedly nods to Blake’s past use of complex rhythms, it’s no simple retread. Earlier this year, in an interview with Mixmag, he intimated that he had no interest in repeating the past and he alluded to those earliest tracks as time capsules from a bygone era; he acknowledged the futility of recreating something that is essentially un-recreatable.

Blake has undeniably taken a left turn into the more experimental realm, but the culmination of this move is more informed by modern-day club music than anything else. 

Not at first, though. Album opener “Asking to Break” is a slinky, slightly sad song that begins with Blake and his piano, warped out, of course, paired with a simple, nondescript beat. As the track begins to blossom, Blake’s heavily reversed vocals come into focus and a nasty little trip-hop beat, along with handclaps, join the proceedings. A soft organ tone plinks out a funereal melody, and Blake’s mostly unintelligible words become both more insistent and lovely. It’s a gentle curtain raiser with a beat that bites, unassuming at first, but multiple listens establish it as a real grower. 

“Tell Me” unfolds with a processed church choir “ahhh” and a buzzing, stuttering synth melody. Blake sings in a more discernible manner, intoning “Tell me if it’s worth waking up for / when there are so many reasons to lay.” Just as you begin to suspect the song will play out as a slightly unnerving, skeletal ballad, Blake fully leans into club territory and brings on a colossal four-on-the-floor stomp, augmented by a full-on, fast dubstep rhythm, which increasingly captivates the more you focus on it.

This winning formula of merging those clubbier four-on-the floor rhythms with the familiar woodblock clacks of dubstep is employed again on “Fall Back”. The song gallops along and eventually gives way to a surprising house melody, which ends the track on a brief and rare celebratory note. 

“I Want You to Know” goes more into full dubstep mode. Minus Blake’s melancholic emoting throughout, the track actually sounds, both in rhythm and texture, like a cousin to Burial’s legendary “Archangel”, with swelling synths that blankets everything around it with a cold sense of dread. Fans of Blake’s earlier endeavors will surely find a lot to love; he does a fine job of reviving sounds that could potentially be stale or derivative and presenting them in a newer, fresher context. 

Despite the album’s highs, there are a few tracks that aren’t as interesting, and they compromise the overall flow of the listen, and they can cause the album to sound like too much of a mish-mash of ideas. “Night Sky”, for instance, lopes along at a reggae’s laid back pace, as Blake sings in a high falsetto that expertly scans across the entire stereo field. The track brings in a majestic, bass-filled melody for a moment before receding again, as Blake’s downcast vocals become echo-laden moans, and a calm, ambient wash signals the track’s end. The track, while pleasant, does not stand up to scrutiny upon multiple listens. 

While it is certainly nice to hear James Blake once again tapping into a more experimental aesthetic, the album as a whole will likely not entirely satisfy fans who still hold a special place for his earliest releases. Those records, for better or worse, set a towering precedent, and listeners have come to expect, or at least hope for, the same levels of innovation found in his earlier years. And while some of the sounds he’s tapping into may be new to him, they’re not all that new to anyone who even casually explores modern electronic dance music. The majority of Playing Robots Into Heaven is still very good, but the album is missing the skyscraping highs of past tracks like “The Wilhelm Scream” or “Retrograde”, and its cohesiveness is hampered by a few lesser songs that have slipped past the slackened quality control department.