As I idly flicked through my iPhone the other day, looking to see what I’d been listening to this year, a thought struck me. The thought was this: In this year of being unadventurous, not actively seeking out much new music, retreating into known acts releasing their umpteenth album, a record that I would choose as one of my favourites of the year would be one by a largely unknown English guitarist whose album takes its name and song titles from a somewhat obscure SF writer named James Tiptree JR. Or rather, Alice B Sheldon.
For “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is James Blackshaw stepping away from the 12-string, bringing in a vocalist for a song, and learning that sometimes, less is more. His albums have previously been marvellously technical affairs, with a guitar-playing style that borders on the obsessively, ludicrously skilled, leading them to become exercises in going “Oooh, how the hell does he do that?” rather than “Oooh, that’s a record I want to play again and again”. For all their beauty, they do not necessarily have the musical charm to keep you coming back for more. That’s not to say that they weren’t often heartbreakingly beautiful; they were, but at times they were just too much.
But “Love…” is different. Blackshaw has moved to using a 6-string nylon guitar, simplifying his sound, and overlaying gentle piano and other keyboards. Instead of the flurry of notes, there’s more space, a breadth to the music rather than the somewhat cloying feel of some of his older records. That’s not to say he’s suddenly become simple, or easy listening. This isn’t the kind of music you can make without putting a huge number of hours in, refining and purifying each bar, each scrape of nail on string.
The opening, title track, sets out his stall early. I first heard this driving down one of those wide, wide American roads, four lanes and about as many cars, in the twilight of a hot humid day, window down, wanting to hear what James had come up with. As the song progressed, I can still remember thinking to myself “Hold on a second here…” and realising that there was something special going on. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” follows with delicate arpeggios falling into beautiful chordal work.
Then comes the momentous moment, the moment all true Blackshaw fans had been dreading….the singing. And whilst I’d never knowingly pick out “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways” to listen to all on its own, it’s better than I was expecting; it’s vaguely reminiscent of one of those Jarboe Swans songs off of “Children Of God”, which I’m assuming won’t insult either Blackshaw himself or singer Geneviève Beaulieu. “The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone” is probably Blackshaw’s finest piano piece. Normally his piano playing is far, far removed from the skill of his guitar, to the degree that with a fair wind and some practice, I could do a passable replication. On “The Snows…” he’s finally transcended his prior limitations and made a stunning piece of music. Again, it’s not the skill on show, it’s the haunting nature of the melody, the simplicity, the space between the notes.
In all, “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” is Blackshaw’s finest album, an album filled with beauty, melancholy, joy, and above all, tunes. Blackshaw himself might be annoyed to read this, but you know what, great music comes down to melodies that fix in your skull and refuse to be removed. From Beethoven, through The Shangri-Las, to this, they all share that ineffable essence of greatness. By spending less time demonstrating his near-unique skills, he has finally made an album that demands to be played again, and again, and again, to become the album I played more than any other this year.