A hypnic jerk is that feeling you get when you’re sleeping—when, just as you’re drifting off to sleep, you suddenly feel like you’re falling, and your body jolts you awake. But if, as James Blackshaw insists with the title of his new album, All Is Falling, then there’s no place to jolt, nothing to bump up against, nothing to jar you out of that feeling. You’re just stuck floating in the middle, which is right where Blackshaw loves to put us. His music is both earth-sturdy and somehow ephemeral, and, on his new record, that in-between world he creates—equal parts fever dream and controlled storm—has grown to his subtly biggest sound.
All Is Falling marks Blackshaw’s first foray into electric guitar. Where his other records have been built on acoustic 12-string guitar or piano, here Blackshaw tries his hand at the 12-string electric guitar. Along with that, the incorporation of other stringed instruments, like violins and cellos, layered on top of horn sections and light percussion, shows Blackshaw’s slow but insistent move out of John Fahey’s acoustic dramatics and into something much closer to neo-classical movements.
All this quiet shift goes to show is that Blackshaw’s sound has no limits. This record is, like his others, comforting in its ability to sound uniquely his, but also a record that ever so lightly floats into new air spaces. Where before Blackshaw was happy to whip up a dust storm around us with his labyrinthine guitar playing, here the layers of instrumentation and voice he began to play with on last year’s The Glass Bead Game are expanded into thick fog banks of sound.
Though there are pauses on it, the album is meant to be heard as one piece, and the movements are labeled as such, from “Part 1” to “Part 8”. Sonically, it picks up perfectly where The Glass Bead Game left off. That record ended with “Arc”, an 18-plus-minute piano surge that left a chasm of silence in its wake. All Is Falling drifts in on that silence to start the record, but wastes no time surging to life. The first five parts all mesh well together, and slowly but steadily build to a huge peak. The album starts with ghostly piano, like that same one from a year ago drifted back in from the silence, and it is five minutes into the record before we hear Blackshaw play the electric guitar for the first time.
What’s amazing about this change is how little it departs from his sound. This is still the organic, pastoral drift we’ve come to expect from him. It can poke holes in the songs, or simmer quietly along their hot surfaces, or churn underneath it all. But here, with the electric guitar, Blackshaw doesn’t rely on effects pedals or distortion or any other filter between him and the instrument. He just finds a sweet, earthy tone and rides it through the album. It meshes beautifully with the strings when they wander in, and as the pieces of All Is Falling move along, a dreamy sway morphs into something more insistent. Blackshaw’s playing picks up its intensity, notes cluster up on each other, a slight reverb echoes out. The violins and cello cut their notes instead of letting them keen.
It all builds, shifting from a sound washing over you to one hitting you with increasingly intense waves, until we get to “Part 6”, the most perplexing movement on the record. After crafting this careful musical world, Blackshaw breaks the dream with voice. Vocalist Fran Bury spends the movement counting off the beats, just speaking each number “1…2…3…” and so forth. Meanwhile, Blackshaw’s voice is under hers, speaking out the music’s measures. The part ends with the music itself fading out while their voices continue to count.
It’s as jarring a moment as you’re likely to hear in Blackshaw’s music, but it turns out to be as close to a hypnic jerk as you’re going to get here. It jolts you back into consciousness for the epic and expansive “Part 7”, the most impressive piece of All Is Falling. The percussion is at its most insistent, and the strings swell up and tangle with each other, each instrument playing out with as much breadth of sound as it can muster, save one: Blackshaw’s guitar. He spends the movement playing an understated riff that anchors all the other sounds down. It’s a moment that proves that, as much of a guitar virtuoso as Blackshaw is, he also knows the value of restraint. The song fades into “Part 8”, which is all atmospheric feedback and squalls of sound. It’s a cathartic coda to a record that draws you so deeply into its world, then decides here to ease you out of it with the same care. Whether this is a dream world, a real world, or some limbo between them, Blackshaw closes the gates on it slowly, letting you find your own way out.
If nothing, All Is Falling shows that James Blackshaw is more than just the brilliant guitar player we’ve known as: he is also a bracing and highly skilled composer. You could argue that, played front to back, Blackshaw’s whole discography is like one massive album, one that grows and morphs as it goes but never quite loses the original thread. So while All Is Falling is striking in the way it both evokes deep emotion and the simple joy of hearing a beautifully human sound, what makes it all the more lasting is that moment of anticipation at the end when you wonder what the next movement in Blackshaw’s music will sound like. And until then, we can go back to this record and realize that that falling feeling is pretty comforting when the jolt never comes.
// Notes from the Road
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