Wednesday, July 22, 2009

David Sylvian Part 2 - Solo 1982-2004


Having finally achieved some success, Japan called it quits and their members went their separate ways. David Sylvian collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto to produce the wonderfully evocative theme tune to the movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The song Forbidden Colours featured a great keyboard arrangement from Sakamoto and Sylvian's distinctive croon.

Sylvian began his retreat from the mainstream with his first solo album, Brilliant Trees. Although there were only 7 tracks, the album marked a departure from the pop-funk of Japan. The first track, Pulling Punches was a slight mis-step, a funky song punctuated by stabs of brass, it was the closest thing on the album to Japan. The rest of the album was far more laid-back. Sylvian sounds a lot more comfortable with this style and his vocals are very strong across the album. It's full of great mellow pieces like The Ink in the Well, Red Guitar, Brilliant Trees and Nostalgia. Nostalgia is a particularly strong track with dark keyboards and a lyric about 'drowning in my nostalgia'. The whole album has a jazz influence to it, with many tracks featuring trumpets from Jon Hassell and Mark Isham.

There was an increased focus on ambient work, and he recorded a series of collaborative pieces with other artists, which were mainly minimal instrumental pieces. His next solo album was Gone to Earth, a double album (in those old vinyl days) featuring in equal parts mellow song-based pieces plus ambient instrumentals. A couple of the tracks were co-written with Robert Fripp. The more conventional songs are generally pretty good, continuing in the vein of Brilliant Trees with jazz overtones. Laughter and Forgetting is one track where he sounds almost desperate, whereas Silver Moon is breezier and more upbeat. There are some longer, 9 minute songs (Before the Bullfight, Wave) which can drag a little. The title track is a kind of atonal, almost random affair with Robert Fripp's guitar clanging across Sylvian's vocals. The instrumental pieces are all very pleasant, almost 'chill-out' in atmosphere, consisting mainly of a single melodic motif, repeated throughout. The titles give the game away as to where his head was at (The Healing Place, Answered Prayers, Upon This Earth) as he was exploring the teachings of Buddhism. To my untrained ears it sounds like he had listened to Brian Eno's Another Green World.

After this he returned to, for want of a better description, singer-songwriter territory on Secrets of the Beehive. Possibly his finest hour, the album starts with a short piano ballad, September which draws you into the album with great lyrics (Sylvian is not always the best lyricist in the world), which conjure up an autumnal atmosphere. Most of the songs that follow are moody pieces, dominated by Sylvian's voice. In the best of these he sounds lost, searching for something. Orpheus is one of his finest ever songs, the musical accompaniment of which reminds me of the sun rising. Hilariously, one of the singles released from this album was Let the Happiness In, which sounds like it's doing anything but! It drifts along at an almost plodding pace, yet it works brilliantly as he croons about "waiting for the agony to stop". It's followed by On the Waterfront where he sounds even more forlorn, managing to get away with a line like "the rain is pouring in my heart" and yet it works, which is some achievement. It's probably his most conventional and accessible solo album, but there was nothing else around like it in 1987.

Despite the artistic success of Secrets of the Beehive, it didn't set the charts alight, not that it was his intention to do so, as by now he was shunning the mainstream. Yet EMI were still hopeful of a commercial piece so he supplied a one-off single, Pop Song. It was anything but. The song bounced along at a reasonable rate but the instrumentation was distinctly offbeat and esoteric, and though it featured an identifiable chorus, there was no climb up the 'pop charts'.
Around this time he had spoken to his old Japan bandmates about working together. The end result was not the 'new Japan album' some expected. Apparently they had run out of money, and the record company agreed to fund the remainder of the costs if they released it under the Japan named. Instead of this, Sylvian funded it himself, and reworked the album alone. It was released under the name Rain Tree Crow, much to the disappointment of his ex-band colleagues, who did not speak to him for 5 years after this. The cover of the album features a storm over a stark landscape, and the music that lies within reflects the barren cover. Personally I find it far superior to Japan's pop funk.

The music itself is close in sound to Sylvian's solo music, a mixture of slow songs and ambient instrumentals. Some of the stronger songs include Every Colour You Are, Pocket Full of Change and Blackwater. The playing on these and other tracks is wonderful. The music is relatively simple and Sylvian's singing is stronger than ever.

A complete departure followed this with the album The First Day, released under the name of David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. There are vaguely funky tracks (God's Monkey, Jean the Birdman), incongruous guitar workouts (Firepower, 20th Century Dreaming) and then the bizarre (the endless dance-trip Darshan). It all sounds like they are trying too hard. Being a Sylvian album it ends with the ambient instrumental Bringing Down the Light. Mercifully there are only 7 tracks!

Following a period of silence (he had embraced domestic bliss) he returned with the solo album Dead Bees on a Cake. Playing more to his strengths, the album was quite diverse. It featured the slow brooding numbers he had become known for (I Surrender), along with ponderous instrumentals (All of My Mother's Names) and a few new departures (the slow blues of Midnight Sun). There were funky work-outs (God Man, Pollen Path), and some forays into easy-listening territory (The Shining of Things, Cafe Europa). Two excellent tracks lurked towards the end of the album: Wanderlust was a beautiful shifting ballad, showcasing Sylvian's vocals and Darkest Dreaming was a signpost for the future, a slow, earnest pleading song with a backdrop of electronic bleeps.

After an ambient instrumental album with Robert Fripp (Approaching Silence), a solo retrospective (Everything and Nothing) which collected up solo album highlights and some hard to find tracks, and then a compilation of instrumental pieces (Camphor) it appeared David Sylvian was attempting to draw a line under this work to enter a new phase in his musical development.

His next album, Blemish, was unlike any previous album. It largely featured atonal pieces, featuring Sylvian's voice upfront and a randomly struck guitar (Blemish, The Only Daughter). Probably his most inaccessible album, it is said to be 'inspired' by the collapse of his relationship. Of the 8 tracks only 2 of them were (relatively speaking) conventional. Late Night Shopping is a series of seemingly banal observations over brooding instrumentation with slow handclaps. For some reason, it sounds like he's stalking somebody. The last track, A Fire in the Forest, is a glimmer of sunlight as he sings about 'there is always sunshine above the grey sky' over an electronica background featuring Christian Fennesz. It's the type of album you want yourself to like more than you actually like it (not that much in my case).

There followed a contribution to a Ryuichi Sakamoto track, World Citizen, an electronic almost protest song featuring Sylvian.

The next post will deal with Nine Horses, Sylvian's next project.