James Blake Brings Back the Weirdness With ‘Playing Robots Into Heaven’: Album Review

Newer fans may not be aware that in the early years of his career, James Blake’s music was really, really weird. The largely instrumental tracks featured lots of blipping, angular grooves and warped sounds and voices that were initially totally disorienting but would always coalesce into something melodic or rhythmic (if sometimes testing the boundaries of coherence).

While his music never really lost that element of surprise and disorientation, it hasn’t always been prominent in his albums, especially since his 2013 sophomore outing “Overgrown,” which introduced a soulfulness that his colder, more aloof debut lacked; in some ways, it seemed like he had been intentionally hiding his formidable melodic abilities, like a teenager who didn’t want his tough friends to know he’s actually a virtuoso violinist. A lot of Blake’s later weirder tracks were aired on his BBC radio show from the early 2010s, or found outlets in his collaborations with rappers like Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar or more left-field artists.

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After several increasingly low-key albums — his 2022 album “Wind Down” is an ambient outing that is literally intended to help people sleep — it’s safe to say he’s brought back a lot of that weirdness, but has merged it into the sounds of his more recent work. “Playing Robots Into Heaven” combines the melodic bent of his post-“Overgrown” material with the angular sounds of his weirdest material, sometimes all in one song, sometimes in turn.

It starts off only slightly oddly, with the floaty “Asking to Break,” but then shifts into what may be the album’s prettiest song, “Loading,” which combines a haunting keyboard line with a characteristic falsetto melody that’s contrasted with what is either his voice treated to sound truly female, or a female singer flawlessly mirroring his phrasing. Then, we’re heading off to the nether regions — while a lot of the tracks here recall his early or odder material, several are also merged with melodies, flitting between one and the other multiple times in the song or even during verses (like on “He’s Been Wonderful”).

The album closes with an almost disembodied-sounding ballad, “If You Can Hear Me,” and ends with the oddly beautiful instrumental title track, which is a gentle, simple melody played on a keyboard that sounds like a combination of a computerized church organ and a ghostly merry-go-round — and perfectly evokes the digital spirituality of its title, and the contrasts of where James Blake the artist is at this point in his always-explorative musical career.

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