David Sylvian is one of those rare 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 been said before. Sometimes it can 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 set 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 get excited when they have a new album coming out because you have absolutely no idea where they’re going to go next.
About five years ago, when a small handful of people were starting to pay attention to what I was doing, one person described my music as sounding like David Sylvian after drinking several bottles 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 around the time I was fourteen. I think it’s best to save all the details for some other time, but one of the early discoveries that made me feel like I was on the right track was picking up Secrets of the Behive (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 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 only stumbled upon Japan (which led to David’s solo work) in the first place because I read a comparison to Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. One of many happy accidents.
I think a lot of 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 something more along the lines of, “Yes! YES! YES YES YES!” Because it was the complete opposite of a safe career move, and the most personal, challenging thing he’d ever done. I’d been lucky enough to absorb so many different kinds of music by this point, what may have been 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. I think they’re both brave artistic statements that will end up standing as some of the best work he’s done. Blemish still feels like a high watermark to me. 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 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 as if the signposts indicating where he might be headed weren’t there over the years. The Japan song “Ghosts” 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, rip off their image too, and make a killing?). The albums recorded in collaboration with Holger Czukay are hardly conventional. Gone to Earth features an entire suite of instrumental ambient music. And Secrets of the Beehive gets pretty close to jazz in some places.
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. 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’d carved out a nice, unpredictable path for himself following the dissolution of Japan with a few increasingly adventurous solo albums and was critically respected if not an overwhelming commercial success. Virgin probably wanted to see something of a return to some of the more radio-friendly aspects of Japan and thought it was time he stop “experimenting” and give them a hit.
He responded with something called “Pop Song”, which pisses all over the entire concept of a radio-friendly single. It’s willfully jagged, with the melody subverted by dissonance at every turn. The lyrics are downright acidic, with David singing a chorus of, “I’ll tell you I love you, like my favourite pop song,” making sure you know he doesn’t mean a word of it.
I can only imagine how horrified the executives at Virgin were when he presented them with their single. The best part is, they 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.)
I remember reading more than ten years ago, at the time of Dead Bees on a Cake, about a short film/EPK David made with then-wife Ingrid Chavez as a semi-explanation of the long break between albums. I 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 watch this. It’s not trying to be anything too ambitious, but I think it’s kind of neat to have.