The death of Percy Shelley occurred in July of 1822, less than a month prior to his 30th birthday. While sailing towards Lerici, Italy, Shelley and two other Englishmen drowned when Don Juan, Shelley’s schooner, sank during an intense storm. Shelley’s death was a subject of controversy, with likelihood theories as far ranging as suicide, navigational incompetence, and even a botched pirate robbery having been recorded — but the point here is that Shelley’s death was a tragic (if arguably fitting) end to a life filled with affliction.
Airs consists of 19 untitled pieces of free improvisation for solo guitar, plus a closing track entitled “The Death of Shelly” [sic] (as in Percy Shelley), a fitting closer to the air of gentle melancholy expressed by Loren Connor’s sparse (yet highly evocative) guitar playing. In short: the Romantics expressed deep feelings with their words; Connors does the same with only his guitar.
Despite the reference to Shelley, Airs does not remind me of his verse, which I generally find to be cloyingly dramatic, even by Romantic-era standards (e.g., “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”). Rather, Airs is coated with foreboding malaise, not unlike the more intense variety described in a letter written by Mary Shelley a month after her husband’s death, wherein she explained his claims to have met his own doppelganger — i.e., an omen of death. Upon witnessing his own doppelganger, Shelley remarked to his wife of having nightmares of their house collapsing in a flood — an eerily coincidental prediction of his death in the Bay of Spezia. This resulting sense of overhead despair reigns over Airs and, much like the Romantics, Connors often finds much to express within these feelings, evoking a gently restrained aura of somber reflection.
However, Airs doesn’t aim for the lachrymose evocations suggested by much Romantic poetry. Instead, Connors’ understated guitar sketches evoke the atmosphere surrounding such feelings — most notably to my ears, the ineffable sense of cyclic moroseness — that is, the inescapable feeling of lonesome repetition, where no matter one’s thoughts or actions, everything can only be perceived in shades of gray. Perhaps most impressively, despite its lack of thematic variance, the overall effect of Airs isn’t despondent so much as gorgeously poignant. It is a desolate and haunting recording to be sure, but not without moments of lucid beauty. There’s no solo-guitar technical wizardry or shredding histrionics to be discerned here — only the sound of a most poetic solo guitar, more lyrical than words could hope to capture.