James Blackshaw has long been a shining light in the world of virtuoso guitar playing. In the same way his compositions build and bloom slowly and steadily, Blackshaw has, over eight previous albums, quietly but insistently made a name for himself with his stunning, inhuman abilities on the guitar and his ability to mesh that with a knack for tone and texture, so that his albums are rarely about just virtuosity but rather about virtuosity as a road to beautiful, melodic songs.
On recent records, he's pushed his musical palate past the usual acoustic playing into other realms. 2009's The Glass Bead Game closed with the stunning 19-minute "Arc," which featured Blackshaw playing simply enough on a piano while slowly drenching the notes in chorus effects, so that by songs end each note has blurred into the other to make a dizzyingly huge sound. 2010's All Is Falling found Blackshaw experimenting with electric 12-sting guitar for the first time, and the results were equally expansive, pushing Blackshaw past the intimate organic sound of his acoustic guitar and into something larger, airier.
But now, after a stint at Young God Records, he's returned to Important Records (who released his great O True Believers back in 2006), and with that returns comes another one . Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, finds Blackshaw back to the acoustic 12-string, but while it may feel like a retread of past successes, he hasn't forgotten what he learned on his last two records. Though the opening title track, with its rolling notes and ruminant space, may feel like an outtake from Blackshaw's breakout record, 2008's Litany of Echoes, it's actually got the subtle layers of guitar and piano he's learned more recently. It's also got a far more melodic center to it. If Blackshaw's playing used to be built on insistent repetition, now it's more about variations on a riff, and the difference is small but key.
This record was created in what the label describes as a "time of great emotional disquiet," which might explain the intimate nature of the record. Listening to these songs, it feels a bit like you're listening in on a conversation between Blackshaw and the music. The way "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" sways back and forth from quick-fire finger-picking to snapping chords feels like a call and response, while the flamenco-infused "We Who Stole The Dream" starts with a slow roll, a warm up of sorts that imitates some sort of reintroduction between player and instrument, before it launches into its speedy, bright center.
Even if they are more refined, they may still sound very much like what Blackshaw has given us before. If this makes the playing here unsurprising, it doesn't make it flat. What's most striking about nearly all of these songs isn't the guitar, or the piano (which Blackshaw once again plays to laid-bare, beautiful effect on the album's closer), but another sound lingering deep in the mix. If you listen carefully, and really not all that carefully, there's another sound you can hear often on this album: the sound of James Blackshaw breathing. You can hear him inhale deeply and exhale slowly though his nose, and the sound is equal parts intimate and troubling. It calls attention to the player here, to Blackshaw himself, which distinguishes this album from its predecessors. Those albums were about the music itself, and Blackshaw presenting himself as merely a conduit for the beautiful sound of his compositions. Here more than ever, though, you sense Blackshaw as a performer, as a man in a room playing an instrument. The connection between the player and the sound he makes is much clearer here, and in it we sense both the tension of that "emotional disquiet" and, in all that breathing, the catharsis of weaving it through music.
This makes Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death the most revealing album of Blackshaw's career, but it also makes it his bleakest. That insistent breathing renders every note just a bit heavier and, despite the great playing here, it can weight things down too much at times. On such an intimate album, however, the most intrusive moment comes with the piano number "And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways." The song features vocals (and words written) by singer Genevieve Beaulieu, and while her voice is far-ranging and impressive, it feels like too much, like a melodramatic moment on an album of emotional restraint. It also distracts from the words Blackshaw is not saying. He prefers to use his guitar (or piano) to speak for him and it is in his wordless playing that this album has the most to say. Even if, at times, it's a bit harder to hear than it should be.