Life’s a series of
obstacles for the art-rocker. That’s not necessarily a problem.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
One can draw parallels between David Sylvian’s career and
that of Scott Walker.
Sylvian, who at age 51 is 15 years younger than Walker, also
experienced early success as a handsome British pop idol – his New Romantic/New
Wave band Japan enjoyed a series of Top Ten hits in the early 1980s, one of
which, “Ghosts,” was remarkable for its ambient soundscape. Like Walker, Sylvian has a
gorgeously smooth, sensuous voice – in his case, a tenor (that seems to have
deepened into baritone) with a yearningly intimate vibrato.
And after Japan,
from the 1980s onward, Sylvian, like Walker,
has moved steadily toward the avant-garde side of pop music with his lyrical
and instrumental concerns, alone and with international collaborators.
And both men have adopted new homelands – while Walker left
his native U.S. for Britain back in the 1960s, Sylvian in the 1990s left
Britain for the U.S. to pursue sadhana, enlightenment
through the aid of a spiritual guru, first in Northern California and then New
Hampshire. Divorced, he now spends time between New York City and New
Hampshire, where his children live.
“For people who leave their native country, you begin to
feel you can’t put roots down anywhere else and yet you can’t go home because
the place you left no longer exists as it once was,” Sylvian says, in a
telephone interview about the release of his new album Manafon. “In a sense, the world becomes your home because one place
doesn’t feel like home any more than any other. Yet there’s a freedom in that
opening. Something is lost but something is gained.”
Both men, in short, have become deep-thinking aesthetes. Yet
if there’s been a major difference, Walker’s music increasingly has tried to
match the despair and darkness of his subject matter. Albums like Tilt and The Drift are tough conceptual art. Sylvian, on the other hand,
especially in his highly lauded 1999 album Dead
Bees on a Cake, had been trying to find breakthrough beauty that contains a
spiritual dimension – not conventional prettiness or religiosity, by any means.
He’s become one of pop music’s great seekers.
Manafon — named
for a Welsh village and released on his own Samadhisound label – continues his
search for peak musical beauty, in many ways. But the darkness that is life is
starting now to surround him.
Working with improvisational musicians over the course of
several years at sessions in Vienna, Tokyo and London, he has created nine
songs featuring hushed and muted soundscapes: breathy, restrained sax; careful
guitar strumming; isolated cello shrieks; short, high-octave piano
explorations; quietly commanding acoustic bass; occasional live electronic
interventions or turntable scratches, and other sounds. Musicians include Evan
Parker (sax), John Tilbury (piano), Werner Dafeldecker (acoustic bass) and
Franz Hautzinger (trumpet). Sylvian relies on his voice, both soothing and
foreboding, to provide the melody; the songs are all ballads, slowly and
ruminatively sung with lots of space between words.
But those words. For a man who seemed on the verge of
achieving bliss on Dead Bees’ “Krishna Blue,” these lyrics often feel ominous. From “Snow White in
“There is no Maker,
just an exhaustible indifference/
And there’s comfort in
that so you feel unafraid.”
“Random Acts of Senseless Violence,” which may be about the
all-too-temporal scourge of terrorism: “The
safety in numbers is just a contrivance/For the future will contain random acts
of senseless violence.” A song called “The Rabbit Skinner,” which ends with
Sylvian concluding “Here lies a man
without quality,” has extra bite because the album comes with a portrait of
a weathered Sylvian holding a dead rabbit.
Sylvian used a process known as “automatic writing” in
coming up with the lyrics. He had done that earlier with 2003’s Blemish, an at-times difficult album at
least partly about his divorce. On Manafon, he was responding to the music that had (mostly) been previously recorded,
sometimes a year ago or longer. It wasn’t completely spontaneous; he listened
to the music studiously to find words that he believed organically fit the
instrumentation. And he occasionally used notebooks to help when he became blocked.
But he also let his own words surprise him, not editing or rewriting them for
“I wanted to get to a certain subject matter that seemed
unreachable, out of my grasp,” Sylvian explains, in a voice both erudite and
confessional. “I wanted to push myself to those areas and see what would
surface. In automatic writing, there’s not really a point where one reviews
what one has written prior to recording it. [There’s] a sense of possible
revelation that can be quite exciting, because what’s revealed publicly is also
revealed to myself.”
So what’s being revealed? One comes up against a crisis in
faith, a mourning for life as lived and its limits. It’s especially striking in
that previously quoted line from “Snow White in Appalachia” – a beautifully
haunting song that seems like a wiser, more sorrowful cousin to The Stones’
“Moonlight Mile” – about the absence of a “Maker.”
“I’m not afraid of complete annihilation,” Sylvian says. “I
don’t have a problem with this life being all there is, that things come to a
full stop at the end of a lifetime. In fact, I find it quite comforting to
think along those lines. I find it a beautiful thought that life can go on, but
there’s no knowledge of what that life will consist of. Does the suffering of this
life also go on into the next, as well as the joys?
“Now my brother, who’s an atheist, finds that quite
troubling, so we’re kind of at odds with each other. He would love to believe
that life goes on. He loves life so much he wishes it were eternal.”
In a way, perhaps, Sylvian is where Peggy Lee was at when
she sang Leiber & Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” back in 1969, but maybe
not as resigned to it as she. “This whole album, in one sense, deals with
disillusionment,” he says. “I think this is just where I find myself at this
particular moment. It’s very much a document of a moment in time.
“There are a lot of questions that show up in the course of
writing the work, but there is no resolution because I had no answers at the
time. Usually I write from the standpoint of having lived thru an experience
and then I feel comfortable to write about it. I haven’t been doing that so
much. I feel more comfortable with the process of questioning and not knowing.”
As Sylvian describes it, his long, devotional search for sadhana lately has been meeting with
obstacles. That’s not an unheard-of thing; sometimes an obstacle is meant to
test someone and show a greater truth. But, he says, he can’t get around this
“I came up against one of these obstacles and I found myself
incapable of getting around the thing,” he says. “So I started to look at what
was being shown to me, but I couldn’t grasp the nature of the lesson. That’s
where I find myself. At the same time, my means of trying to comprehend it are
part of my development.”
Asked what specifically that obstacle is, Sylvian demurs.
“That’s a kind of personal issue I don’t feel comfortable talking about
directly,” he says, with a tone of apology.
On the flip side, Sylvian notes, there’s a positive side to Manafon.
“It’s dealing with the poetic imagination, the creative mind, which is
enormously powerful and in some way is connected with the core of our being. If
a life is given shape by one’s poetic acts, I think there’s great beauty to
that and great significance to that.”
So Sylvian’s struggle continues – as does his art.
To read the BLURT
review of Manafon, go here.
[Photo Credit: Donald Milne]