Perversely I started with the album which is considered to be the most difficult to listen to - Blemish - written during the break-up of Sylvian's marriage and completed in a relatively short time. Although the accompanying instrumentals were stark (at times the scratching of a guitar is the only embellishment) and the songs at times could be accused of being rambling, I was surprised how quickly I took to the album. Particularly compelling were the sentiments explored - 'How little we need to be happy' and 'The heart knows better' really struck a chord and filled me with confidence that experimental music does not have to be a chore or a pose but can be enjoyed.
Going back in time Brilliant Trees was Sylvian's first solo album after the split with Japan, interesting in that it sounds almost nothing like his previous work (see the Dolphin Brothers Catch the Fall for a more obvious take on what Japan might have sounded like had they not imploded) but explores different musical textures including jazz (shudder) and acoustic. It could be a mess but musically its coherent and held together by its themes of understanding your place in the world (inspired by reading Sartre's Nausea which accentuates the desire of intellectual pretensions so missing in some music). 'Pulling punches' opens the collection in an exhilarating way, perhaps the most upbeat number, followed by 'Red Guitar' which is my absolute favourite even despite the obvious jazz influenced piano, regarded rather disgustingly by a friend of mine, which only endeared it to me more. More introspective are 'Nostalgia' and 'Brilliant Trees' and no less wonderful for it.
Everything and nothing (with its plaintive cover) is a quick way to come up to speed with the work of Sylvian, an anthology of his work whilst with Virgin records, including the albums Dead Bees on a cake and Secrets of the beehive as well as various rarities and singles that have not made it onto previous albums. It also includes the glorious 'Pop Song' which Sylvian apparently wrote in response to being asked to do something more commercial... as you can imagine it is anything but, merging discordant chords with grumbling lyrics and for the possessor of such an emotion-filled voice it emerges that it is possible for Sylvian to sound utterly blank. A superb two fingers to the charts (needless to say it didn't get anywhere but are we surprised?) 'Bamboo Houses' continues the Eastern influences so explicit in Japan's music and it is the diversity of the styles covered that so intrigues; Sylvian has the intelligence to surround himself with excellent musicians that are as eager to deconstruct sound as he is.
Despite the power of his voice, the largely instrumental albums that Sylvian has released are not disappointing in that they lack which is so appealing. Gone to Earth contains some of the most evocative music I have ever heard, conjuring up hidden idylls in their titles as well as the soundscapes created; 'A Bird of Prey vanishes into a bright blue cloudless sky' and 'Sunlight seen through towering trees' leave no mystery as to the atmospheres they wish to create in the imagination. This is the second half of the album, the first half is concerned with songs that are just as beautiful, even the lengthy 'Wave' (over nine minutes) does not outstay its welcome and (excuse the terrible analogy) ebbs and flows with Sylvian's emotional lyrics, very compelling. 'Taking the veil' is much gentler yet throbs with the same power. It is purely an emotional engagement, I find myself at a loss exactly how to articulate the impact... the same too with Alchemy: An Index of possibilities which brings together other instrumentals, the short 'Words with the Shaman, Pt 2: Incantation' (featuring lively percussion from Steve Jansen) is gripping, impossible to guess exactly where all the sounds come from (real or taped) but of this earth. It is grounded, evocative of the difference to be discovered when conventional approaches are abandoned. It is a constant; Japan were playing with difference, even if it seems submerged under style, and Sylvian to me represents the ceaseless roaming of an unsettled soul, seeking for constancy, perhaps not finding (or wishing) to find it...