As illogical as it might sound, especially to anyone who flinches at the notion of noodly six-stringers, the most soulful moments on Shapeshifting often occur during solos. Joe Satriani – the man who first made smart, horrifyingly skilled guitar playing cool and fun with 1987’s Surfing With The Alien – seems to stretch out in these live-wire fusions of blues, rock, world and jazzy sensibilities.
So where does that leave the ‘tunes’ themselves? In truth, Satriani has become a better, smarter guitarist since his prodigious breakout days. He’s also a more thoughtful arranger and producer (he co-produced this album with Foo Fighters/Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers guy Jim Scott), with a glimmering vault of sounds and intricacies at his fingertips.
On Ali Farka, Dick Dale, An Alien And Me, Satch and band sashay between African-inspired beats and spacey qualities. Spirits Ghosts And Outlaws is darkly brooding yet biting. Falling Stars is all far-out contemporary jazz mystique. Christopher Guest plays mandolin on Yesterday’s Yesterday. Somehow it all sounds effortless.
Still, at heart Satriani has always been all about melody. Without his Albert King blues and a Led Zeppelin ear for grooves, none of that swashbuckling deep-space shit would work.
There’s one track on Shapeshifting that really nails this. Where others demand multiple listens for their charms to shine through, first single Nineteen Eighty is a home run straight away and still sounds killer umpteen spins later. Billed as an “attempt to recapture what was on his mind in 1980”, it rocks like hell and comes soaked in Eddie Van Halen panache. It’s a joyful riposte to anyone who says ultra-disciplined virtuosos don’t have any fun.
Elsewhere, though, it’s difficult to escape the sense that Satriani has been on the creative conveyor belt for a long, long time (reliably putting out a new album every couple of years, touring heavily in between), and therefore must be finding it increasingly harder to churn out fresh fiery tuneage.
Big Distortion shuffles innocuously into the light, perked up by a snappier bridge. All For Love is sleek but beige, and is rescued by heartfelt soloing. All My Friends Are Here has a benign warmth to it, and again is spiced up by solos. All fine, if unlikely to reappear much on future set-lists.
As a whole, Shapeshifting might not lure in a ton of new Satriani converts. But with its thoughtful display of textures and tones (plus a couple of killer moments) it offers plenty for fans to enjoy.