David Sylvian - "A Fire in the Forest" (A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012)
It begins with a song we’ve all heard before: Japan’s “Ghosts,” from 1981’s Tin Drum, the point at which English singer, songwriter and conceptualist David Sylvian discovered there was more to the life of song than programming, drum-pads and Peroxide. If Japan started as England’s answer to New York Dolls, they ended up as one of their home country’s most perplexing propositions, a Romantic art-pop group both fastidious and mysterious, drifting between the exotic, the erotic and the quixotic, with Sylvian their beating heart, the “most beautiful man in pop,” and from all accounts, one of the most privately alienated and anguished — at least, at the time. The pressures of pop can construct a weird, unforgiving fortress for the heart, and “Ghosts” is the sound of one man beating down the drawbridge.
Or not, for this particular ghost was partially re-recorded in 2000, for a previous retrospective, Everything And Nothing. It’s no surprise Sylvian’s tinkers with his past, given his discomfort with looking back: it’s also no surprise to learn Sylvian had next to nothing to do with A Victim Of Stars, a brilliant if slightly lop-sided compilation of hymns for quietly imperiled souls. Lop-sided because it’s all about the songs, and Sylvian’s other career in ambience and improvisation is largely neglected. But if it does nothing else, A Victim Of Stars reinscribes the artist’s name in the alter-canon of great British visionaries, fit to sit alongside figures like Mark Hollis, Robert Wyatt, Roy Harper, and adopted son Scott Walker.
It took him a while to get there. Early collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto, like “Bamboo Houses” and “Bamboo Music,” or the gorgeous if overplayed “Forbidden Colours,” set his voice in too-rigid confines, something he continues to suffer from through his first two albums, Brilliant Trees (1984) and Gone To Earth (1986). In the acrid funk of “Pulling Punches” and sylvan swoon of “The Ink In The Well,” you can sense a voice striving to make its way out of its shell; tellingly, the best moments on Gone To Earth are the instrumentals, but instead we get serviceable singles “Taking The Veil” and “Silver Moon.” The experiments on these two albums happen under the radar, under cover, from Holger Czukay’s sidereal tape disturbances on “Weathered Wall” through to the driftworks of Earth-bound pieces like “Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees.” None of them are here.
Sylvian has recounted his disappointment with 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive, but this gorgeous, self-contained song suite is the foundation on which his subsequent career is built. Quiet and resigned, “Orpheus” is the kind of liquid folk that John Martyn aimed for (and achieved) on Solid Air; “Let The Happiness In” is possibly Sylvian’s most moving song, pivoting on two chords and singing out to the end of “agony” and the beginnings of new life. (It finds an echo, six years later, in the Fennesz-arranged “A Fire In The Forest,” which similarly takes one simple melody and two chords and creates reflective joy.) Singing to Orpheus and Eurydice, Sylvian here is working Greek mythology and cloaked revelation into a liquid and peregrine song cycle.
At which point, silence, more-or-less, on the solo album front, for 12 years. During the down time, Sylvian collaborated with Sakamoto, the ex-members of Japan (as Rain Tree Crow) and Robert Fripp: all appear on A Victim Of Stars. They’re nice enough, but the real revelation here is “I Surrender” and other songs from 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, a productive dalliance with soul and R&B, with Sylvian’s typically becalmed approach to songwriting the lingua franca that connects this most American of song forms with the rest of A Victim Of Stars’ Continental countenance. Also impressive about these songs is their ability to tell of metaphysical and spiritual transformation without sounding glib or pat, the lyrics reaching to the heart of the matter yet somehow avoiding cliché. If anything, the peculiar tone of Sylvian’s voice — deceptively smooth on first gloss, yet consisting of a rich graininess, crumbling at its edges like a Madeleine — gifts flight to these lyrics with its amber glow, letting their plain-speaking allegory ring out.
By 2009’s Manafon, sadly only represented here by “Snow White In Appalachia,” Sylvian has untethered the music from the blind flood of structure, calling on heavy names from the world of electro-acoustic improvisation, such as Christian Fennesz, Polwechsel’s Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser, AMM’s John Tilbury, and Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura, to radically de-center his melodies. Here, as on the songs from its predecessor, 2003’s Blemish, where he worked with Fennesz and improv heavyweight Derek Bailey, Sylvian responds quickly to the recordings the musicians offer, melody determined as much by the skeins and wefts of thrum, crackle and glitch that his supporting cast thread around him, as by any internal or pre-determined logic. The “variations” on Manafon songs collected here, from 2011’s Died In The Wool, only attest to the peculiar genius of their original host album, bringing “Small Metal Gods” in from the downpour, now under the shelter of an arch, yet starchily beautiful string arrangement from Dai Fujikura.
Thirty years into his solo career, Sylvian is still an odd and unpredictable character. He’s engaged with some of the great musicians of our time — Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost, Keith Rowe — and somehow been granted Papal dispensation to negotiate, as if freed from Earthly concerns, the politics and personalities that bind and separate his cast of players. But listen through A Victim Of Stars in one sitting, take in its 150-minute breadth, and the overarching sense you’re left with at the end of the set is that of a continued unveiling, layers lifted, armor removed, hearts pierced and exposed over time. Throughout, Sylvian’s songs retain their peculiar emotional coloration, of tension bubbling just under the surface, such that his description of “A Fire In The Forest,” calling it a “lullaby for neurotics,” does well to describe most of the 31 songs here, in some way. Sleep well, paranoiacs.