David Sylvian’s career following the dissolution of the band Japan has taken some wild turns, often into beautiful, otherworldly territory. Certainly not the kind of career choices one would have expected him to make in his early years of being a British pop-star. In Japan, Sylvian and his band mates modeled the group on glam rock heroes like T-Rex or the New York Dolls and they found themselves, eventually, becoming very successful. Just as they achieved that success they folded.
In the beginning of their career it was their image that was the selling point of the group, but as they pressed on, their writing and arrangement techniques became more sophisticated, most critics changed their mind about them and they managed to walk a thin line between rock stars featured in magazines and rock stars whose records get listened to by music critics, when they’re at home (no doubt drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes and taking a break from listening to Jazz).
With their last studio album “Tin Drum”, Japan was able to make a record that had a massive commercial appeal while subtly sneaking in very diverse and forward thinking musical ideas. This was a great departure from the bombast of the first records where (by their own admission and in punk rock style) the members of the group were just learning to play. Into his solo career, David Sylvian embraced many of the strategies used on “Tin Drum” to present music to an audience. It’s music difficult to love on first listen, but striking and haunting nonetheless. And if you happen to like such things, enough to get you listening to it a few more times. “Tin Drum” has had an important influence on alternative rock music.
For one thing, the more Sylvian advanced into his career the more fragile the music seemed as if the artist was almost trying to find a way of recording silence. Sylvian meditative lyrics that feel more natural coming from the otherwise soft spoken singer. This was something akin to career poison for most most other “new romantic” bands that Japan had competed with once in the charts. It is worth noting perhaps that Japan, just as they were starting to come to the decision of breaking up, had reached their commercial peak. A lot of their funk and electronic inspired sound and the striking (often times kitschy) image was going to be the prime inspiration for groups like Duran Duran, that would be among the most successful bands in the world for years to come.
On “Secrets of the beehive” (1987), David Sylvian manages to create haunting musical soundscapes, just as he had been able to do on the previous three solo records. But in this case he is more focused on songwriting. Most of the songs are written in a classic, familiar format. Other of his recordings would focus more on the mood of the music and would share little with the verse-chorus format of most rock music. Although a lot of the arrangements feel as if they were born out of experimentation, they are used in a way so as to compliment the songs.
It is a listen that rewards those that are patient. The music feels at time to want to fade away entirely. One of the greatest tricks of Japan’s and Sylvian’s music is the use of silence and long fade outs that add to it’s ethereal qualities. Gone was the immediacy of punk rock inspired songs, but the trade off was a goone one.
Ryuichi Sakamoto is among Sylvian’s collaborators here. The two had worked together on the single “Forbidden Colors”, arguably one of Sylvian’s career highlights (which is included as a bonus track on some reissues of the record). Sakamoto brings his knowledge of ambient and avant-garde music to the fold, while the music treads without difficulty between conventional and experimental.
“Let the happiness in”, “The boy with the gun” and “Orpheus” are among the album highlights. To be clear, this album has highlights. Songs that must have felt like potential singles, enough so to keep record company, that was financing the album, happy. But the album is best enjoyed when listened all the way through, because the songs do make up a cohesive work.
Sylvian sings in a crooner like voice, the tone and technique he had grown into since his days with Japan. Like other contemporaries his vocal influences were pulling him between the sneer of some of the punk singers and the gentle croon of singers like Brian Ferry and David Bowie (on some his recordings following his Ziggy Stardust period). Where once Sylvian’s vocals may have sounded slightly forced and lacking confidence, here the quality of that sound adds to the feeling that the music is a shared private moment of the artist with the public.
The record excels in making itself private, small, shining in it’s subtleties. This makes it different from other albums of the time with which it must have shared space inside music stores. This record shouldn’t be confused with a soft pop-rock album which were a considerable force at the time. It’s not an easy listen. Rather, it’s an exercise in minimalism and in coding information in such a way that it feels confessional, but the information is usually provided in the form of images and lush arrangements which leave room for the listener’s own interpretation.
David Sylvian would continue to be a pop-star making some of the more experimental and introspective music that any pop-star would take the risk of offering to the general public. While not making a pursuit of running away from success and pop chart endorsements, Sylvian is an artist who has constantly embraced an alternative way of thinking about art and about it’s presentation, making for many compelling listens.