For James Blackshaw, guitar virtuosity is less a display of fretboard fireworks than a means to an end. The British twentysomething has a lengthy discography of 12-string acoustic guitar compositions that are equally experimental and classical in nature. However, recent years have seen a noticeable shift in sound. In the past Blackshaw used his 12-string as the symphony, but All His Falling — his eighth studio album — finds him in true composer’s clothes, directing a small string section to accompany his guitar and piano.
True to this change in direction, the record is actually one long piece divided into eight movements. His acoustic guitar has been replaced by an electric, but he uses it mainly has a melodic base for the violins and cellos to build off of. His past English folk influences are less overt this time around, occasionally cropping up in segments like “Part 2” before giving way to lengthy orchestral codas. Blackshaw’s work is characteristically elliptical, with repetition hammering home the composition’s somber melodies. In “Part 7,” the instruments circle each other for what feels like an eternity before reaching the overall piece’s dissonant climax. That dissonance is striking; the dive-bombing strings open up new compositional options that he could only hint at with his 12-string.
But despite the extra flourishes, Blackshaw can’t seem to capture the energy and vitality of his earlier forays. With just an acoustic guitar, he was able to whip up worlds of sound and mood. Falling appears to be a tentative dip into composing; the structure is fairly conservative, sounding at times like a soundtrack rather than a living, breathing piece. What’s worse, it’s overwhelmingly grayscale. With an entire range of instruments and sounds available to him, Blackshaw seems content to use the minor key almost exclusively.
Blackshaw succeeds in the few bits of light he allows to creep in. Before the weighty buildup to “Part 7,” he offers the brilliant fretwork of “Part 4.” The snaking melodic lines build a great deal of momentum to the album’s latter half. “Part 2” slowly introduces a fingerpicked figure before Blackshaw expertly incorporates a widescreen string part that’s the emotional high point of the entire composition. Curiously, he ends Falling with a patient drone, allowing his guitar to ebb and flow among a symphony of mellow feedback. Considering the half hour of melancholy that preceded it, the drone is a welcome breather — and, I hope, a harbinger of things to come.
The mixed results of All Is Falling are hardly worrisome. James Blackshaw is an obvious talent seemingly caught between his past and future, and the sound of him figuring out which path to take is still intriguing. There are some noticeable growing pains, but Blackshaw possesses a rare gift: curiosity. He’s already mastered the guitar; with a little time, there’s no doubt he’ll conquer that orchestral sound he’s been chasing after.