James Blake Returns with “Playing Robots Into Heaven”

Breaking a two-year hiatus, James Blake has just returned with his sixth studio album, Playing Robots Into Heaven. Blake’s last official full-length came in 2021 with Friends That Break Your Heart. That album showed off his industry standing, as it featured a laundry list of hip-hop and R&B icons. SZA appears on “Coming Back,” JID on “Frozen,” and production duo Daytrip (of Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba” and Lil Nas X’s “Panini”) assists on production for the heartbreak karaoke standout “Life Is Not The Same.

Looking back even further, the London singer has garnered some of his biggest hits via that sort of collaboration. On Assume Form, his fourth album, he nabbed Metro Boomin and Travis Scott, reuniting with the team that brought him his breakout single “Mile High” in 2014. It seemed like a safe bet that Playing Robots Into Heaven would bear the same all-star cast, but looking down the tracklist reveals the opposite. All the songs are crafted by Blake and Blake alone, the first of many surprises that this project holds.

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Credit: James Blake Official Twitter

A Forward-Thinking Shift in Sound

The early stages start innocently enough. “Asking To Break,” the opener, employs the pitch-shifted falsettos that the singer has experimented with in the past, and uses them to create an emotional dissonance between Blake’s somber, vulnerable lyrics and the bright, piano-laced production. “Loading” continues that theme, with a refrain of “Wherever I go, I’m only as good as my mind. / Which is only good if you’re mine.” This song is the first indication that something is different though, as droning synths play in the background, creating a noticeably electronic atmosphere.

By the time we reach “Big Hammer,” all illusions are lifted, and Playing Robots Into Heaven is fully in grime mode. That’s in both senses of the word, too. It’s dirtier and darker than anything Blake has previously produced, and it’s taking all of its cues from the UK EDM genre that bears the same name. His vocals aren’t even present, instead leaving the repeated chorus to a patois-filled dancehall sample.

A Project That Unexpectedly Tugs at the Heart Strings

It’s absolutely of note that this project isn’t simply an exploration of love in the same way that previous Blake albums have been. One of the more notable moments to that point comes on “If You Can Hear Me,” a heart-wrenching tribute to his father. Though public details of their relationship are understandably sparse, the singer speaks to some level of strain and estrangement. With an understated vocal presence here, he instead, cedes space to desolate, forlorn strings. All of that adds a ton of weight to what he does choose to say: “Dad, if you can hear me. / We speak less than I’d like. / I don’t know how I grew away from the vine.”

In fact, the closing bars of “If You Can Hear Me” are the last we hear of Blake on the LP. The title track, “Playing Robots Into Heaven, is a 4-minute soundscape, haunting and discordant. Listening to it, it’s not hard to imagine why this piece ended up with its moniker.

Another Standout Record in Blake’s Increasingly Impressive Catalog

Though chipper and bright moments have always been hard to come by in anything penned by James Blake, Playing Robots Into Heaven finds the multi-talent at some of his lowest points. He pines fruitlessly after lovers long gone; he shows off loneliness in all of its (lack of) glory. And, even in returning to his dancehall roots, there’s a morose undertone in many of those pieces. It’s a triumph nonetheless, as it proves his dexterity when it comes to embracing moments that others would try their hardest to forget. And, in case fans and audiences generally had forgotten his production skills given his talents on the mic, this serves as a strong reminder that he’s equally adept behind the boards. Playing Robots Into Heaven is certainly not the most accessible or bright listen, but it’s one of the more rewarding ones that we’ve gotten in 2023.

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