Mysticism in its myriad forms boils down to a set of techniques that assist one in a process toward an ultimate goal: absolution, divinity, enlightenment, etc. One such technique that finds purchase across most traditions is repetition, sometimes in the form of a mantra, whispered ad infinitum, or a rosary, a prayer that involves a repeated motion but fixed form. James Blackshaw’s rippling flows of guitar and piano most commonly take this second structure. Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death, perhaps Blackshaw’s most lucid and rawest effort to date, explores the effects and possibilities of repetition, plunging deep into a humility that suggests the movements of this process of refinement.
In a recent interview with Marissa Nadler, Blackshaw describes the period in which he created this record as a difficult and tense experience. You can literally hear his effort; the recording captures the sounds of his deep breaths and the occasional buzz of the fretboard. His use of a nylon six-string, as opposed to his usual 12-string, opens up much more negative space, except obviously during his sustained piano pieces, which instead carry that space like a heavy burden. Listening to this album produces an effect similar to that of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon: here there is neither excess nor flourish, but a human being (two of them, on the third track) in a state of vulnerability. We sense neither the nebulous whirl of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” nor the shining lilt of O True Believers’ “The Elk with Jade Eyes,” nor the dense complexities of The Glass Bead Game’s “Bled.” Blackshaw has distilled these styles into a more rarefied essence, infusing them with a melancholy that pervades even the sunniest parts of this album. In some ways, Love is the Plan dwells in gloom, but it ultimately feels like an attempt to transcend it. It accomplishes one of the primary functions of folk song: to rise above a bleak and repetitive existence in a kind of ecstasy.
In this way, Blackshaw does not innovate much on his previous works, apart from stripping them down to a core. The only novelties this album contains are Geneviève Beaulieu’s voice and lyrics on the third track, “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways.” As a kind of centerpiece, Beaulieu’s lyrics work to accomplish this same pervasive mood, but the song acheives “solely a glimpse of another world,” in its own words. Even the song titles suggest this sense of loss. The title of the album’s final piano piece seems to respond to François Villon’s “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis,” whose most famous line Dante Gabriel Rosetti rendered thus: “But where are the snows of yester-year?” Blackshaw answers, “The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone.”
Blackshaw is among the most talented of living guitar players. What makes this fact most obvious is his taste. He can play fast, intricate patterns with ease, and can run up and down scales with the listener barely noticing. But he never allows this skill to obscure his composition; a song unfolds in an intuitive yet complicated series, without succumbing to mere showcasing or absurd invention. Forms occur, then lead logically into transformations and elaborations, and finally return, only to transform again. Repetition of structures in his compositions is common, though it is not always obvious. But repetition as such is an illusion. Inevitabilities such as minor fluctuations in the air or slight deviations in timing will happen, but more importantly, repetition is a denial of the interim: an attempt to return to the original form, which is now lost in the vanished past. Any reuse of an earlier form must carry with it the accumulation of all that has occurred in between. Blackshaw’s prayer-like compositions make this paradox apparent and reveal that forward progress annihilates the past. The desire for repetition may be a kind of nostalgia, but here is something deeper than a longing for the pleasures of bygone days; it is a species of Sehnsucht, a yearning for the obsolete that compels its recognition. This is the album’s transformative, refining force: to use this awareness to propel oneself forward, away from desire for repetition, out of the past.