Album Reviews

James Blake – Playing Robots Into Heaven

(Polydor / Republic) UK release date: 8 September 2023

His sixth album is at times intoxicating, with the rare ability to move the feet of a large crowd and the heart of a single bedroom listener simultaneously

James Blake - Playing Robots Into Heaven One of the great advantages of being a DJ as well as an artist means you can road test new songs by stealth. James Blake found himself in the ideal position to do just that on the crowd at CMYK, the ‘smoky nightclub situation’ where he was able to bring some of his sixth album into the dancing world.

For this new opus is an album for clubbers – those in all parts of the venue. Even if you’re stuck in the queue outside, Blake is thinking of you – with snatches of music teased round corners and through closed doors. Inevitably, though, Playing Robots Into Heaven is at its most fulfilling when experienced in the middle of the dancefloor. It is the sound of a dance music lover going back to basics on the rhythm tracks, but up top Blake is busier than ever, bringing through cosmopolitan influences from those DJ sets, which have recently included music from Japan and Brazil.

The beats certainly hark back to dubstep days, which means in truth they look back to the late 1990s. Fall Back is a prime example, its vocal chopped up over a full-bodied, two step beat and bass, while keyboards create a bewitching mirage in the middle foreground. Big Hammer is hewn from the same block, percussion and vocals ducking and diving across the stereo picture to thrilling effect.

There are euphoric highs to be found as the album progresses. The clever wordplay of Loading makes it a sad banger, its warm falsetto vocals layered over a serrated rhythm track. It seems wholly appropriate for the worrisome modern age, with a memorable plea for security. “Wherever I go I’m only as good as my mind”, sings Blake, “which is only good if you’re mine”. Fire The Editor has a regretful vocal (“I’ve already failed so many times”) with a winding melody on single finger keyboard. It’s an example of the moving simplicity Blake can bring to his instrumental writing, a feeling enhanced by the title track where it could almost be a quartet of school recorders Playing Robots Into Heaven.

The club heavy numbers on this album are thoughtfully balanced with opportunities for Blake’s soulful vocals to come forward. I Want You To Know takes its chance with both hands, the beats reverberating around a bigger warehouse space while the lead vocal, intimate and closely guarded, makes a plea for the heart. Though the songs are not always fully formed the clubbing view pans out towards the end, Night Sky hinting that the roof has temporarily opened for a glimpse of the stars.

This is a satisfying and at times intoxicating album, dark clouds parting to reveal a bright glitterball in the centre of the picture. It is a unity of the best elements of James Blake’s music – the rare ability to move the feet of a large crowd and the heart of a single bedroom listener simultaneously. He nails both achievements with striking regularity here.

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