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James Blake recaptures the solo nightclub spotlight on Playing Robots Into Heaven

"Playing Robots Into Heaven"

Release date: 08 September 2023
James Blake Playing Robots Into Heaven cover
07 September 2023, 09:00 Written by Elliot Burr

Imagine finding familiarity with crate diggers, hip-hop heads enamoured with Kendrick Lamar and Travis $cott’s demure moments, and fans of Spider-Man.

Not many artists can lay claim to credits so diverse, but James Blake has managed to scatter his production smarts and signature vocal balladry all over them.

Following 2010's masterful dub-inspired EPs The Bells Sketch and CMYK, even through to the lockdown era’s classy dance-like return on 2020's Before, Blake’s album forays have been tougher to pinpoint as cohesive works. 2016's The Colour In Anything was a packed-out, expanded sonic palette following his original heady electronica, while Assume Form (2019) and Friends That Break Your Heart (2021) were unfocused musings on love and loss. He even released an AI-assisted album designed to help you sleep (2022's Wind Down). It bubbled under the surface of major exposure, but similarly captured the singer's constant dabbling with his idiosyncratic soundcraft.

Likewise, Playing Robots Into Heaven returns to the experimental yesteryear with Blake mainly retaking the lonely helm. For all his work alongside esteemed guests including André 3000, Rosalía, and SZA, his manipulated harmonies still carry the most delectable hypnotic quality as on synthetic sultry opener “Asking to Break”. With vocals more in line with the excellent “If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead” or “Everyday I Ran”, it maintains his atmosphere of experiencing a warm cuddle and a good cry under the strobe lights. Lyrically there’s also brightness to be found in the head-swarming darkness – “I’m only as good as my mind, which is only good if you’re mine” sits atop dense layered builds on “Loading”. More intentionally jarring (but surprisingly musical) glitches make up “Tell Me”, juggling pacey beats with Blake’s solemn croon.

If “Tell Me” indicates overwhelming hedonism, trap-inspired lead single “Big Hammer” instead feels restrained. Sounding more Nokia ringtone than sound system blaster, vocal samples from Ragga Twins provide serious oomph that the instrumental can’t quite match as it develops. But those on the dancefloor screaming out for murky two-step from the Hessle Audio days can find solace in “Fall Back” and the synth-swelling downtempo of “I Want You to Know”, where Blake comes closest to a vocal hook by interpolating “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell. His more traditionally constructed songs make up the backend, and the penultimate man-and-piano track carries all the emotional heft of “Don’t Miss It” despite its short interlude length, before the title track’s shimmering swan song.

Writing a truly transcendent dance album is a rare feat, and the experimental studio tinkering on unusual cut “He’s Been Wonderful” best sums up the continual theme of James Blake’s full-length output. With skills and interests cemented across various styles, he’s figuring out in real time exactly what he does best – providing floor fillers to club crowds or elevating his performances through complex production. Perhaps when he sings, “Where are my wings? / they’re loading”, the artist is acknowledging that he’s still to assume his most resolute form yet.

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