James Blackshaw: Summoning Suns
Late last year, James Blackshaw released Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat, a full-ensemble live score originally performed in Paris near the end of 2013. Though well-intentioned, the project wasn't an unequivocal artistic success, though Blackshaw deserved credit for taking on something so ambitious. That the result was less than satisfying proved troubling in another sense, however, specifically in the way it seemed to capture an artist who, having received deserved critical praise for a bravura string of guitar-based instrumental releases, now appeared somewhat uncertain about where to go next. It's unclear at this stage whether Summoning Suns will be the first in a similarly styled series of releases or a one-shot, but one thing is clear: not only is his tenth studio album a far more satisfying proposition than its predecessor, it's a major reboot that points its creator in a fresh new direction.
It's a concise collection, first of all, whose seven songs total a modest thirty-two minutes. But most dramatically, Summoning Suns is the first Blackshaw recording to feature his voice and lyrics. It's a risky move, for sure, but one that pays off, as his singing is fine, a little tentative perhaps, but fine nonetheless. For the most part his gentle voice works well, yet it also at times is so feathery it threatens to disappear; the vocal delivery in “Failure's Flame,” for instance, is so soft it invites comparison to Seals and Crofts. With the songs' arrangements packed with strings, flutes, and Blackshaw's exemplary guitar work, Summoning Suns plays like a ‘70s singer-songwriter album with the style leaning in the direction of innocent pastoral-folk. The songs are uniformly strong, the best on melodic grounds “Confetti,” which serves up one delicious hook after another, and the arrangements a constant source of pleasure. A rich range of instrument sounds is featured, and the songs include contributions from Simon Scott, Annie Nilsson, Mori Wa Ikiteiru, and Kaoru Noda. Delightful instrumental flourishes abound, be it the pedal steel that appears near the end of “Confetti” to hijack the song to country-rock territory, or the fluttering flute that joins Blackshaw's glistening picking during “Failure's Flame.”
Despite its relative brevity, the album feels perfectly tailored for a twelve-inch presentation and is effectively bookended by instrumentals. At album's start, “Averoigne” picks up where Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat left off, but does so in a succinct two minutes with glockenspiels, piano, and organ establishing a resplendently uplifting tone that continues into “Confetti.” Buoyed by a free-spirited lope, the exuberant song is immediately earmarked by a vocal blend (Blackshaw and Annie Nilsson) that's so ravishing the listener might not even clue in to the fact that lyrically the subject matter concerns, in part, suicide. By comparison, “Nothing Ever After” exudes a downtrodden tone that's reinforced by bitter lyrics that could refer to a failed romantic relationship or perhaps professional disillusionment (“Send for my successor / To do the same things better”). Re-establishing the album's light-hearted spirit, the breezy folk-styled “Towa No Yume” charms the listener when Blackshaw duets in Japanese with Kaoru Noda.
Interestingly, only one piece, “Winter Flies,” draws us back into the finger-picking world of Blackshaw's earlier releases, and the fact that it's strategically placed at the end makes it feel like a reminder to the listener that no matter how many changes Blackshaw goes through, he hasn't forgotten from whence he came. A number of things characterize Summoning Suns but perhaps nothing more so than naturalness. One comes away from it a tad mystified about why ten albums had to appear before Blackshaw started singing, especially when the combination of his voice, arranging, and songwriting is so winning. Here's hoping for more of the same.