david sylvian is one of those characters, like john cale or scott walker, who i’ll probably always be interested in because he refuses to recycle past musical glories and keeps pushing himself to say things that haven’t necessarily been said before. sometimes it can get to be tough going (i wasn’t into a lot of the sylvian/fripp album when i first heard it, because it was too jarring at the time to hear that voice against music that was so much more aggressive than what i was used to hearing as a blanket for it), but i’m glad there are artists out there who have enough respect for their audience to expect them to grow and evolve along with them—to the point that you can genuinely get excited when they have a new album coming out, because you have absolutely no idea where they’re going to go next. about 5 years ago, when a small handful of people were starting to pay attention to what i was doing musically, one person described my music as sounding akin to david sylvian after drinking a lot of cough medicine. i always liked that and took it as a compliment.
once or twice before, i’ve talked a little bit about my period of self-imposed musical re-education that happened around the time i was 14 years old. i think it’s best to save all of the details for some other time, but one of my early discoveries that made me feel like i was on the right track was picking up “secrets of the beehive” (which is probably always going to remain a desert island album for me) and the rain tree crow album on the same day in 1998, and finding both of them infinitely more interesting and exciting than the diet of corporate rock and commercial radio i had been mostly existing on up to that point. “blackwater” in particular conjured all of these cinematic images in my mind, in a way i don’t think any music ever had before. i promptly went about trying to get my hands on everything david had ever done. and i had only stumbled upon japan (which led to david’s solo work) in the first place because i read a comparison to bryan ferry/roxy music. one of many happy accidents.
i think several people jumped ship when “blemish” came along in 2003 (screaming “where the hell are the gorgeous multi-layered melodies? what is this weird weightless dissonance?”), but i remember thinking, “yes! YES! YES YES YES!” because it was the complete opposite of a safe career move, and the most personal, challenging thing he had ever done. luckily i had absorbed so many different kinds of music by this point, what may have been initially impenetrable to me five years before was instead something i could immediately enjoy and meet head-on. “manafon” alienated even more people and made “blemish” look almost like a pop album by comparison, but i think they’re both brave artistic statements that will end up standing as some of the best work he’s done. “blemish” in particular still feels like a high watermark to me, and i just pulled it out for another listen a few days ago and was struck again by what a great piece of work it is. “the heart knows better” deserves to be the musical centerpiece of some great independent film.
still, i was a little surprised that so many people were shocked by the flagrantly anti-commercial direction david took as soon as he established his own label and became completely independent. it’s not like the signposts indicating where he might be headed weren’t there over the years. “ghosts” by japan has to be one of the strangest hit singles to come out of the 1980s (and is it just me, or did duran duran basically rip off one element of japan’s sound circa “quiet life”, water it down, and make a killing?). the albums recorded in collaboration with holger czukay were hardly conventional, “gone to earth” featured an entire suite of instrumental ambient music, and “secrets of the beehive” gets pretty close to jazz in some parts.
but one of my very favourite curveballs is something that was never on any widely available album until the “everything and nothing” compilation came out in 2000. apparently, in 1989 virgin records (david’s label for quite some time) asked him if he might release a single that was a bit on the poppier side. he had carved out a nicely unpredictable path for himself following the dissolution of japan with a few increasingly adventurous solo albums, and was critically respected if not overwhelmingly commercially successful. virgin probably wanted to see something of a return to the more radio-friendly aspects of the work he had done with japan, and thought it was time he stop “experimenting” and give them a hit. he responded with something called “pop song”, which basically pisses all over the entire concept of a radio-friendly single. musically, it’s willfully jagged, with the melody constantly subverted by dissonance. lyrically, it’s downright acidic, with david repeatedly singing, “i’ll tell you i love you, like my favourite pop song”, obviously not meaning a word of it. i can only imagine how horrified the executives at virgin were when he presented them with their single…and the best part is, they actually released it just as it was, complete with david’s choice of cover art—a washed-out image of a naked, faceless female torso. not that it got any airplay or troubled the charts. but as an artistic statement, i think it’s kind of brilliant.
(streaming audio only, so no one gets sued)
on a different note, i remember reading more than 10 years ago, at the time of “dead bees on a cake”, about a short film david had made with then-wife ingrid chavez, as a semi-explanation of the long break between albums. i had always wanted to see it, but it seemed to only be available on “enhanced” cd singles that were pretty much impossible to find even on ebay. thankfully, today we have youporn…i mean youtube…to make such things much easier to find. it’s fun to finally be able to see the little video. it’s not trying to be anything huge, but i think it’s kind of neat to have.