James Blake: Friends That Break Your Heart ★★★★★

By Sharon Zheng

With Friends That Break Your Heart, James Blake architects a planetarium of loneliness, betrayal, and self-reflection; the quintessential emotions that postdate a torrent of broken friendships. Opening with “Famous Last Words”, Blake establishes the psychedelic ambience and surgically refined production trademarking the album. The syncopated beat in the background penetrates like a heartbeat and builds anticipation, clutching the listener’s attention throughout. While the former half of the song is monochrome and stylistically recalls Sam Smith, a minor key twist in the bridge followed by an explosion of chilling strings near the end reveal Blake’s singular artistry; he characteristically introduces unexpected, postmodern musical elements to the traditional pop formula. 

Consciously or not, the opener’s song structure conceives the blueprint for what’s to come. James Blake unlocks emotional intensity in repetition, as lyrics such as “I’ve truly lost it” and “In the end, it was friends” (the latter from the title track) become tattooed in our brains and not only accentuate Blake’s feelings of regret and acceptance over the circumstances presented, but make us relate individually. Sometimes, however, such monotony can cause a song to draw out for too long and send one to sleep. For the most part, Blake avoids this pitfall by incorporating a range of vocal devices, from layered echoes to intricate falsettos, and sporadically revelling in poetic mastery on lines such as “I look okay in the magic hour / In the right light with the right amount of power” from “Say What You Will”. He expertly shifts between the conversational and the descriptive, making it well-balanced and intriguing for listeners. 

Every track features a starring quality. While “Funeral” embodies a gloomy interior and exterior, Blake’s layered harmonies create a choral effect that is instantly hypnotic. Spine-tingling vocal trills save “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” from being a dull and awkward filler. “Foot Forward” is notably brisker and rhythmically stimulating, enhanced by jazzy piano parts that reinforce Blake’s genre versatility. “Say What You Will” sends the album to apotheosis with its cathartic build-up and its paroxysmal agony in the final note extensions. The hurt in Blake’s voice is so palpable in the outro, it’s impossible not to be painfully mesmerised. The message of the song is universally inspiring, as Blake encourages us to find inner peace and to not submit to the discouragement found in comparing ourselves to others. “Lost Angel Nights” is the perfect marriage of the alternative, R&B, and electronic genres, and is embellished by some enchanting, Björk-like instrumental moments. Here, Blake further showcases his impressive vocal range, existential lyrics, and penchant for writing complex, transcendent melodies. “Friends That Break Your Heart” is a delicate folk song that makes you feel like you’re roaming around Kyoto Garden as you break down to Blake’s mournfully resigned lyrics.

Chiefly, the production rings intentionally hollow and articulated around echoes, which portrays the haunting emptiness of being devoid of those (friends) you once loved. James Blake’s writing resides in raw honesty, introspection, and contemplation, which make his music all the more relatable. Such lyrics find home in minimalist production, which offers a sense of continuity and safety, making the messages stand out more and concentrate everything into a single period of time. Compared to the maximalist, lavish backdrop of Lorde’s Melodrama, however, which conceptualises a night of similar feelings, Blake’s album sees tracks blend into one another like an extended lament, which is both hit and miss. Nevertheless, Friends That Break Your Heart is the pinnacle of James Blake’s artistic greatness and despite its period dullness, it is a project worth finding solace, emotional relief, and fascination in.

Hi, I’m Sharon! Currently, I’m in my third year of studying Management at LSE. I write about music, film, and television shows for The Beaver. One of my core interests is songwriting and in particular, I love exploring the poetry and storytelling behind lyrics. I am an aficionado for nostalgic, melancholic content, so I am always open to recommendations of emotional, soul-stirring material. Feel free to reach me at s.zheng22@lse.ac.uk or sharonxzheng on Instagram!

Sharon Zheng


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