James Blackshaw - "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death)
British composer James Blackshaw’s early albums on 12-string guitar always felt more like love letters to guitarists like John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho and Sir Richard Bishop than applications for admittance to the “American Primitive” canon. He is British, after all, but more importantly, Sunshrine and O True Believers covered well-trodden trails instead of blazing their own. An argument could be made that the aforementioned innovators left little room for improvement, but Ben Chasny has done pretty well mutating it into a dark psychedelia. Anyway, Blackshaw is nonetheless a very gifted musician and, since 2008, he has gradually moved away from aping Fahey and towards a form of restrained modern composition. As such, Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death, the latest installment in this intriguing new direction, seems far-removed from the primitivism of The Cloud of Unknowing.
Two tracks, “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways” and “The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone,” feature Blackshaw setting aside the guitar in favor of his piano, a prominent partner ever since 2008’s Litany of Echoes. Both are delicate, melancholy tunes, particularly the former, which is pleasantly supplemented by Geneviève Beaulieu’s warbling vocals. The guitar pieces, meanwhile, are vintage Blackshaw, but with more emphasis on a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. The titular opener is quite a gem, with Blackshaw’s delicate finger-picking complemented by moody chimes that evoke a more polished Ilyas Ahmed. Most interesting is that throughout “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” — on all the guitar tracks, actually — you can hear Blackshaw breathing, which really adds to the intimacy of each performance.
Stylistically, the album veers from the smoky Appalachia of the title track, via medieval English folk (“Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”), to the lonesome hotel bar vibe of the piano tracks. The problem with Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death is that whilst Blackshaw is a virtuoso musician with a talent for bridging styles and atmospheres, it’s bereft of spontaneity. As such, whilst this is a lovely, well-made album, nothing separates it from countless other acoustic folk recordings.