Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 3, 2021

James Blake’s new album expresses a heartbreak worse than romance

By JULIA ALUMBRO | October 19, 2021

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HENRY LAURISCH/CC BY SA-3.0

Blake’s new album Friends That Break Your Heart is a genre-bending meditation on the highs and lows of friendship. 

After a busy year of songwriting and technical setbacks due to the pandemic, James Blake finally released his fifth studio album, Friends That Break Your Heart, on Oct. 8. The album is a testament to his growth as an artist, moving from his post-dubstep/electronic era into modern genres of pop and R&B. With 12 songs and a run-time of 44 minutes, Blake takes us on a transformative journey exploring themes of grief, regret and heartbreak. 

Blake is most notably known for his collaborative work, whether it’s producing, writing or singing. His musical footprint is far-ranging; he’s worked on many award-winning albums like Blonde, Lemonade, DAMN. and Astroworld. From these collaborations, Blake has developed a unique experimental sound for his personal work as an artist. His prominence as a producer allowed him to bring in popular artists for Friends That Break Your Heart, collaborating with SZA, Joji and Metro Boomin.

To sum up Blake’s sound, his music is driven by carefully placed interruptions of traditional song structures. This is partially why listeners are drawn to his music. His songs are an abstraction of traditional rhythms. Even more impactful, though, are his lyrics and delivery of simple sentences at the height of his songs that carry meaning and leave us in deep thought. His sound is arguably a new genre of music, birthed from the influences of dubstep, R&B and techno work.

Before releasing Friends That Break Your Heart, Blake teased us with three singles from the album. The titles “Say What You Will,” “Life Is Not the Same” and “Famous Last Words” hinted at another album about romantic heartbreak, but it wasn’t until the title reveal that we understood the type of heartbreak Blake wanted to capture.

He talks about the meaning of the album in an interview with The Fader

“It’s a breakup with a friend, of a certain number of years, like someone who’s just so central to your life and it’s hard. There’s no kind of protocol for it,” he said. “One of the themes of this album is to actually talk about that and to say that.”

The title track, “Friends That Break Your Heart,” clearly delivers this message with the chorus: “And as many loves that have crossed my path / In the end it was friends / It was friends who broke my heart.”

By understanding the implications of the album title, we’re able to connect Blake’s lyrics to friendship and apply them to our own lives and personal experiences. After doing a deep dive on the lyrics of each song, I realized that Blake also incorporated different reasons for friend-breakups, each as grief-filled as the next. 

The song “Coming Back,” featuring SZA, is about returning to a friend who broke your heart. It’s a texturally wavy song that tackles themes of regret and betrayal. The intro of the song goes “Cause it hurts, ‘cause it hurts like the end of the world / And like betrayal, like betrayal of the soul I’d never thought of before.” The lyrics talk about the indescribable pain of losing a trusted friend. It’s not a true “breakup” song, but it exemplifies the forgivable nature behind most friendships.

In my favorite track, “Lost Angel Nights,” Blake talks about letting go of an emotionally exhausting friendship. He sings the refrain “Lost angel nights / Never jaded eyes / Envy is no crime / Away from me is just fine.” While Blake empathizes with the lost angel in the song, he also realizes that he’s being dragged down by a toxic friendship. This is the true type of heartbreak that Blake wanted to capture in his album.

In the song “Funeral,” he sings with the roles reversed. Instead of being the friend that leaves, Blake sings from the perspective of the friend being left. It is the shortest yet most pain-riddled song on the album, with the lyrics “Goin’, don’t give up on me / Please, I’ll be the best I can be / I’ll be the best I can be / Don’t give up on me.”

So, what has Blake done with this album? In his interview with The Fader, he said he wanted to address heartbreak from a lens that people don’t often see. His goal was to have more people acknowledge this pain and talk about it. With his structural intelligence and deliberate interruption of rhythm, Blake perfectly communicates this message in Friends That Break Your Heart.

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