The Glass Bead Game
Record Review by Adam McKibbin
Much is made of James Blackshaw’s age (he has yet to hit 30), but this is one case where it doesn’t seem to be mere reflexive laziness on the part of the press: it really is something that someone so young has become such a master of the 12-string. Even Blackshaw, who seems perfectly modest and polite, has admitted to Pitchfork that he’s come to a point where he’s not quite sure what’s left to do on his instrument of choice, while he did come across one new prospective challenge during a piece on NPR: scoring a horror movie.
The Glass Bead Game, his seventh studio album, is a product of Blackshaw asking himself “What’s next?” In particular, he’s become smitten with the piano, which takes the baton from the guitar on “Fix,” the album’s third track (there are only five in all, but one spans ten minutes and another almost twenty). Blackshaw isn’t yet as much of a head-turner or ear-seducer on piano as he is on guitar, but he’s still playing to his strengths: graceful, patient compositions that are rich in nuance. Patience is indeed a virtue; as much technique as Blackshaw may have gleaned from John Fahey & Co., he’s also studied his minimalism and classical composition, and the recurring motifs and repetitive threads in his songs may be what listeners identify as “cinematic.” The melancholy center of “Fix” almost sounds like something that could have been on an ambient album like Moby’s Animal Rights (though they are seemingly miles away in both genre and cred, they are both students of the game – and know a thing or two about compelling drama).
But let’s back up. If there’s an album this year with a more beautiful and beguiling opener than The Glass Bead Game’s “Cross,” I have yet to hear it. Everything crystallizes for Blackshaw here – anchored as usual by his wonderfully expressive playing, and perfectly melding the fuller sound he’s chasing. A string section heightens the tension, and Lavinia Blackwall floats above with a lovely, wordless vocal melody.
The other obviously noteworthy track – “Bled” and “Key” are each captivating, but more familiar – is the closing odyssey “Arc,” which clocks in at 18:49 and again finds Blackshaw testing the piano waters. There are numerous exquisite moments, starting with the sparse piano alone in the wilderness, then unfurling into a majestic orchestral swell. There are some lulls in momentum, some transitions that stretch a little long, but it’s a very promising statement about what’s on the horizon for Blackshaw as he moves beyond the guitar. In the meantime, “Cross” is the sound of an artist who’s perfected his current craft in the here and now.