Okay, wait. Was I the only who didn’t realize James Blake dropped a new album? While a low-key approach doesn’t surprise me from Blake, he’s famous enough to gain traction. Though it appears he wanted to keep things mostly under the radar. Following many listens of Playing Robots Into Heaven I now see why. This album isn’t very pop. Like, whatsoever actually. It walks a path of UK bass and dance music, splashed with ambient elements as well. It’s safe to say: James Blake is one of my favorite artists in the world. So, naturally, I anticipate loving any record he creates. The buck does not stop in 2023 for me. Although this release came as a surprise, luckily it was a pleasant one. I love when the most talented artists are unafraid to experiment.
From the jump he wanted Playing Robots Into Heaven to live as a detour in his lush, and sometimes melancholy, discography. Blake’s baritone paired with his unique production style make for another signature display of sonic craftsmanship. Despite not loving every aspect of this album, it stands tall upon its own merits. James’ pen is as personal as ever. The vulnerability, sharpness, and pace at which he expresses innermost inklings continue to impress me. He showcases this most prominently on “Fire The Editor” and “Loading.” Those two get stuck in my head constantly. While they may not be traditionally catchy, his style truly resonates with me. No one sounds quite like James. He constructs electronic soundscapes and shines them through prisms of dance, R&B, and ambient experimentation. Consistently he finds methods to unite ubiquity with uniqueness. A flattering trait indeed.
Another essential track, “I Want You To Know,” flips the outro of Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s “Beautiful” from over 20 years ago. That music video replayed so many times as a kid. This soulful interpolation brought a smile to my face. He turned a sweet, little bridge into an angelic anthem. Here lies a perfect example of what sets Blake apart from his peers. He sees the (music) world differently. Give him a crumb, and he’ll somehow build a gingerbread house. Sonically inclined since his youth, the London-born songster mastered the piano early. The keys bend to his will. He never allows anything to rush him. Blake belts with the utmost confidence, knowing how much truth he pours into his work. Even though Playing Robots Into Heaven won’t ever be considered his best, perhaps it’s his most idiosyncratic.
Which, for an artist of Blake’s caliber, says a lot. Yet here are my main gripes for this album. Despite its soothing atmosphere and transparency, James leaves a little too much meat on the bone for my taste. These instrumentals have been wonderfully produced. However, tracks like the forgettable and scant “Night Sky” along with sections of “Big Hammer” and “He’s Been Wonderful” failed to hold my complete attention. Yes, the “Big Hammer” beat goes hard. There’s no denying that, although the Reggae vocal sample doesn’t function strongly enough as the track’s protagonist, so to speak. Few albums fit the mold for a seven-track sequence. But Playing Robots, in my opinion, would have benefitted from a more limited presentation.
I welcome this dance direction. Nevertheless, it’s Blake’s poignant lyricism that takes his music to the Promised Land. Without it, some of these tracks feel partially empty. All I wished from “Night Sky” was a brief vocal passage, or sample, that contextualizes the song within the arc of the album. And “He’s Been Wonderful” entertains me yet succumbs to its own loop, making it feel staler than it really is. At least the title track closer wraps things up in a neat bow, embodying the album’s namesake (though also devoid of lyrics), even if I couldn’t quite get my head around this record’s thesis.