David Sylvian has been on one heck of an artistic journey since his first musical appearance as front man in the early, New York Dolls-apeing incarnation of 1980s favourites (and thinking-person’s New Romantics) Japan. That gradual, but ultimately dramatic evolution, from swoon-inducing lead singer to fiercely intelligent and challenging avant-garde writer and performer has continued, and quite possibly attained its highest peak yet on this, his twenty first post-Japan release.
The first thing to say about this astonishing work is that it’s less an album of “songs”, more almost an audio poetry book. Before I could even begin to start marshalling my thoughts sufficiently to write about it, I felt compelled to sit and transcribe the lyrics to each track (bar the instrumental ‘The Department Of Dead Letters’), the better to mull over and savour the striking images, ideas and above all emotions that they articulate.
To the sparsest, sparest musical accompaniment, Sylvian seemingly lays bare a troubled soul. It is hard not to interpret the words as disturbing and personal, particularly in the repeated references to suicide: “My suicide, my better days, there’s nothing I regret” from ‘Small Metal Gods’, for example, or pretty much all of ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’, which taken as a whole reads like an extended suicide note, or at best the story of a failed attempt. It tells (autobiographically?) of a man who felt that “the love he engendered would never be enough”, who encountered “plastic-coated surfaces” and “shut himself outside” and appears to be singing from a hospital bed where “the curtains round the bed are drawn / Broadcast voices from the ward / The humming of machines are heard”. The reference to “a man with so much self in his writing” would only appear to confirm that this is Sylvian telling his own story. The description of a “child of the 50s / with no common sense / no easy resting place” in ‘The Rabbit Skinner’ also sounds autobiographical.
In ‘Random Acts of Senseless Violence’ Sylvian moves one step away from the purely personal, and manages to evoke, probably better than any writer that I’ve read thus far on the subject, the feeling of non-specific, generalised dread and fear that have seeped into the general psyche since 9/11 and the London bombings. Bald couplets like “The targeted will be non-specific / We’ll roll the numbers, play with chance” and, especially, “Someone’s back kitchen stacked like a factory / With improvised devices, there’s bound to be injuries” and “No phone-ins, no courtesy, no kindness / And the future will contain random acts of senseless violence” produce a genuine chill, and a shock of recognition that is the mark of genuinely affecting poetry.
A female protagonist also appears, elusive, withdrawn, and mysterious on ‘Snow White in Appalachia’ (“Sometimes you’re only a passenger in the time of your life”) and ‘Emily Dickinson’ (“Without so much as a kiss, or the comfort of strangers / Withdrawing into herself”). The album’s pervasive sense of hopelessness and nihilism is best illustrated on the former, with the line “And there is no maker, just an exhaustible indifference”.
One of the many impressive things about the lyricism Sylvian displays is that you notice, almost as an afterthought, how he manages to produce perfect rhymes, time after time, without sacrificing the sense of the words, or ever making it sound contrived. Just look at these lines, from ‘Small Metal Gods’:
“I’ve placed the gods in a ziplock bag, I’ve put them in a drawer
They’ve refused my prayers for the umpteenth time, so I’m evening up the score
Small metal gods from a casting line, from a factory in Mumbai
Some manual labourers’ bread and butter, and a single-minded lie”
Beautiful, meaningful and they sound as good as the meaning that they convey.
What of the music, then? Sylvian assembled a collection of expert musicians in the series of sessions that created this album (the first in 2004, the last in 2008), whom he describes as a “remarkable group of individuals who’ve pursued the less trodden path where music and free improvisation are concerned”. The resulting accompaniment is sparse, spare, sometimes interjecting fiercely to punctuate the lyrics and Sylvian’s beautiful, tremulous yet underplayed vocal, at other times stepping back and letting the words and voice do most of the work. It also succeeds in genuinely mirroring or conjuring up distinct and specific moods and feelings to complement those conveyed in the words.
In summary, then this album is one to immerse oneself in. Accepting and embracing the slow, painstaking pace, and allowing the words, sounds, ideas and that voice seep in (possibly whilst reclining in a darkened room) will truly reveal its manifold, dark, truthful and brave appeal. One of the most striking and impressive releases of the year.