Sunday, July 20, 2008

'There you stand making my life possible' - The music of David Sylvian

If you told me a few months ago that I would be listening to music which seems to be inspired by those who live in the endless deserts grassy savannahs and tangled forests away from the superficiality of the western world, the silence in-between the puzzle of existence, isolated communities, ambient jazz noodlings and mystical spiritualism then I probably would have laughed for a long and hysterical moment.  Needless to say my changed has been changed from contact with the long and interesting career of David Sylvian.  Prior to recent David Sylvian had existed for me in that periphery in the mind rarely explored, a name with such connotations attached as world music, difficult, obscure, a pretentious and aloof chap (also mixed up with David Byrne) but with little actual meaning.  So when the name becomes something real it is hard to resist the category being dragged up, assumptions and all, to be re-fashioned into something new and exciting.  So the category David Sylvian now means a rich complexity of sound, the only singer I can give time to for ambient jazz (yes really) David Sylvian I have to hand it to him.  He has kept me going in the times when I felt down, the rich melancholic timbre of his voice at once soothing and troubling, the gentle hush of twilight in an over-stimulated world.  Like Billy Mackenzie he underwent something of a dramatic change from a very mannered, (if not as hysterical as Billy M), approach to singing, finding and settling in with his voice over a number of years, along with the relentless desire to experiment with music and seeming to push himself into new territory with each new release.  The one thing holding it all together is his voice, familiar, easing gently into more adventurous soundscapes.

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...

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