It’s apt that James Blackshaw chooses to title a track (“Boo, Forever”) on Summoning Suns after a poem by countercultural author Richard Brautigan. Brautigan was an experimental writer, penning abstract and often humorous poetry, short stories, and novels touching on many genres including mysteries and westerns. Blackshaw, too, can’t be easily pinned down. Known primarily as a dazzling acoustic guitar player in the mould of Fahey, Kottke and Basho, he is also a multi-instrumentalist and has composed a full-band film score for a French silent film. Since the early 2000s, he has recorded an extensive series of wide-ranging albums, delving into classical, jazz, and avant-garde.
The aforementioned track, as well as the 13-minute instrumental “Holly” are added onto the end of some versions of Summoning Suns, though they were originally released together as a single in 2011. Even though they come from an earlier time, they’re a welcome addition to an album that clocks in at less than 35 minutes without them. Both cuts fit well with the mood and flow of the album, which is a collection of instrumentals plus Blackshaw’s first real foray into singing.
One wonders why he didn’t attempt singer/songwriter material sooner, as it’s certainly not for lack of skill. His vocals are warm, mellow, and expressive. The songs are sometimes wry and light, sometimes moody and dark. On “Confetti”, Blackshaw is joined by Harry Nilsson’s daughter Annie for a bouncy pop song, so sunny that if you didn’t listen close, you might miss lines like “I throw confetti in the street / As you hang yourself with a sheet” and “abusing angels, pulling their wings out”. It’s the kind of song Bud Cort’s character in the film Harold and Maude would love.
A sort of companion to “Confetti”, at least in mood, is the Japanese-language “Towa No Yume” (translated as “Everlasting Dream”). On this track, as well, he shares the vocals – here with singer/songwriter Kaoru Noda. “Towa” is a marvel of construction, opening like a children’s nursery rhyme with gentle finger-picked guitar. Light piano enters, until a pedal steel guitar signifies a turn to a stop-and-start guitar pattern with flute and orchestral touches. The last part brings it all back to the simple, gentle guitar of the beginning, the pedal steel coloring the very end.
The instruments used throughout Summoning Suns give the album a unique richness, with glockenspiel, organ and bells illuminating “Averoigne” (that literary influence again – this time to a fictional French province in the writings of 1930s author Clark Ashton Smith), to a sylvan flute melting away the melancholy in “Failure’s Flame”. On the title track, Blackshaw plays an intricate spiraling guitar pattern, the proceedings punctuated halfway through by a small orchestra before returning to the main motif.
One of the moodier numbers, “Nothing Ever After”, sums up where Blackshaw seems to be with this album: exploring new ground, not content to keep making the same kind of music. “Simple my successes / To do the same things better,” he sings. In other words, it would be easy to keep making the same kind of music he’s known for, honing and fine-tuning, but where then would the artistic growth be?
It remains to be seen whether James Blackshaw the singer/songwriter will continue or whether his next release will return him to more instrumental soundscapes. For now, Summoning Suns is a perfect entry point into his musical journey.