Poetry for Supper – David Sylvian and his Journey to Manafon

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You can’t get much more rural than Manafon, the tiny Welsh border village of sandstone and slate, dominated by a simple chapel and an ancient elm tree. The tree’s leaves turn a rich golden yellow in October and collectively give up the ghost in a stiff biting breeze, cascading from their branches one autumnal afternoon, the scene briefly bringing to mind a “golden fountain playing silently in the sun.” Those last few words belong to the former rector of Manafon, R.S. Thomas, a deeply spiritual, solitary, nationalistic man and a poet too, one of Wales’s greatest, who wrote, “Every night is a rinsing myself of the darkness that is in my veins. I let the stars inject me with fire, silent as it is far, but certain in its cauterising of my despair. I am a slow traveller, but there is more than time to arrive.”

We probably all cannot agree, depending on our own personal religious beliefs, that there is “more than time to arrive” at our destination, but a measured, thoughtful trip through life, to epitomize “the slow traveller” is a preferable path, if an idealistic one of course. David Sylvian was so influenced by the words of Thomas, that he named his last solo album “Manafon” in the poet’s honour. Sylvian himself has been a slow traveller, from his days as the dashing and effortlessly elegant lead singer of Japan, to his experimental and heart-rending recent albums Blemish and Manafon. He has walked a path which few commercially successful artists travel, from mainstream celebrity to art house icon, from the centre of the New Romantic scene, to a periphery of creativity and spirituality.

The man himself seems to have a relevant if charmingly obscure quote to hand for any question broached in his direction. He responds to an inquiry from me about the shyness which has dogged him all his life with a quote from the American author Joyce Carol Oates, “My nature is orderly and observant and scrupulous and deeply introverted, so life wherever I attempt it turns out to be claustral. I would not wish” he went on to add “shyness on anybody.” Like many artists, be they actors, writers or musicians who often use personal, usually painful personal experience to engender creativity, there is as the director Alan Strachan said of Alec Guinness a “final, untouchable core” to David. Only so much can be put up for public consumption, the rest is kept hidden, close to the heart, creating a contradiction which many creative people face, the wish to “conceal yet also express.”

Aside from shyness, Sylvian, who was born in Kent in 1958, was also an uncompromising child, not wishing to emulate anything he saw in the world which surrounded him. He formed his band, Japan, with his brother Steve Jansen in 1974 when just 16, later signing a record deal with German disco label Hansa. A million miles away from the scruffy upstarts that were the punk generation, David fostered a debonair image, all quaffed hair, skinny ties and waistcoats, a dash of the dandy, mixed with the darkness of a Fassbinder film or Liliana Cavani’s Il Portiere di Notte. He admits now that this cultivated persona was part of the creation of the “walls of my fortress”, but at the time he was a poster boy for the New Romantic image. Despite the considerable success Japan saw in the groups later years, scoring hits with songs such as Ghosts (1982) and notching up increasingly respected art-pop albums such as Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981), David does ­not look back on the era with a great measure of glee, in fact he does not look back at all, “When a period of my life has ended” he says, “I think it’s fair to say it is no longer of interest to me, it was shed like a skin and I’ve honestly not dwelt on it since.”

After the groups split in 1982, David continued to record as a solo artist, releasing albums such as Brilliant Trees in 1984 and Secrets of The Beehive (1987), widely regarded as his masterpiece. Then with Dead Bees on a Cake in 1999, came the start of a sea-change in Sylvian’s sound and creative style. The sprawling album, which ranges from sophisticated pop, to explorations of eastern world sounds, mysticism and spirituality, was David says a, “Summation of all the solo material that went before it. I knew when I had finished I wouldn’t be returning to quite the same waters again.” What followed, in 2003, was Blemish, an extraordinary album by anyone’s measure, stacked with eloquent misery and a pioneering sound. The listener is dragged backwards through waspish electric currents and static, images of late night shopping masked with little wisps of electricity and a slow hand clap, shopping hypnotised, “take me with you” he sings, “it may just help me make it through the night.” Sounds of guitars plucked as if their strings had been replaced by rusty barbed wire abound, wrapped around his mournful voice. Then he sings on the final track, “A Fire in the Forest”, “There is always sunshine above the grey sky, I will try to find it, yes, I will try.” Just a glimpse of hope, a slim glimmer, offered up in the nick of time, after a trip through a very dark night.

The album was created during the collapse of his marriage to Ingrid Chavez and David channelled the desolate emotions he felt into the creation of the album as a kind of creative catharsis, using his unhappy state of mind to delve deeper into some of the darker corners of his consciousness. Once you are down, you may as well keep drilling and see how far you can go and use the experience to exercise some hidden demons. “I had a sense of trauma” he says, “which needed addressing, that wanted out. I used the emotions to punch further into the darker recesses of my own mind, to see how far I could go, to see what I would find there and if and how I could give it voice.” Blemish, David says is a “portrait of a person in crisis,” a person on the edge, in a moment of deep self revision, which could conclude in self correction or self destruction.

Of course many artists have this particular kind of album in their back catalogue, their “Blood on the Tracks”, their “Tonight’s the Night”, but it is the sound not the abject misery which marks Blemish out as different, an innovative sound which has proved a little too contentious for some Sylvian fans. The album eschews traditional melody and the comfortable frame of the pop song, favouring instead the ­­improvised guitar playing of the late Derek Bailey, with David’s voice acting as the only line of melody, holding the music together. The improvised nature of the project enabled the creation of an album with a sincere sense of urgency to it, which David says, “Was rapidly completed and left in its natural state, rather than producing something over deliberated and refined.” It is of course very difficult to intellectualize pain, to mollycoddle or rationalize it, you can hide its sharp edges musically with masses of strings and whimsical lyrics sung with a Sinatra-esque croon, but that does not mirror the true feeling of the real thing, those feelings of loss, betrayal, emptiness, loneliness and the bilious indifference they make you feel for life when you harbour them. The sound of Blemish is a truer reflection of emotional pain.

The improvisational technique was continued on David’s most recent solo release, Manafon, but on a bigger scale, this time utilizing string and woodwind players as well as guitarists. Sylvian admits that the Manafon sessions were in a way an “unnerving proposition,” with no concrete melodies or lyrics to offer to some of the best musicians in their field when they arrived at the studio, only his “assurance, guidance and intuition.” The lyrics followed the recording of the music, with David sitting down sometimes twelve months after a track was recorded, reacting and writing to the music as he played it back. “I wrote what came to mind in the moment I sat with it for the first time, based on what was suggested melodically and were that led me lyrically, although this would also be influenced by the subject matter I was considering and my state of mind at the time.” The results of this innovative approach to song writing are both moving and yet sometimes jarring, such as the nearly seven minute portrait of Emily Dickinson, featuring tripping electronics and a blaring oboe. The album to say the least takes some getting into, something that takes time and multiple listens to build appreciation, a near impossible task for the casual listener.

David, in the same vein as Scott Walker, has tracked backwards from popular, traditional, conventional material to the experimental, at the risk of alienating and losing a committed following. Let’s face it, many of the same teenage girls who swooned and melted when he sang “Quiet Life” on Top of the Pops in the 80’s are now, most likely, to deem Manafon unlistenable. But this is something, admirably, David does not worry about, for the sake of attempting to create something different and groundbreaking. “With both Blemish and Manafon” Sylvian says, “I was moving into uncharted waters, therefore it was not always going to be easy for the general audience to accompany me all the way, but to have made the material any more accessible would have been to dilute its purpose and potency. I don’t believe this marks a disrespect for the audience, on the contrary it’s an attempt to offer something of significance. It is relatively easy to repeat the past, it is a far harder, more heartfelt effort to imagine the future.”

However this does not mean that David intends to stick with this formula for the rest of his career. His new compilation album Sleepwalkers is engendered from collaborations with such luminaries as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Dai Fujikura, and features a handful of sublime pop songs, including the sweetly melodic “Exit/Delete” and the dirty up-tempo chic of “Money For All.” This suggests that David is still open to being seduced by the faithful, comfortable frame of a traditional song, “I won’t discard one process for the sake of another” he says, “I do love the notion of the pop song and the limitations and challenges they impose and it’s a mistake to look at the last two solo albums and believe that this is the only kind of material the process is capable of producing, as it can potentially produce a wide range of results. Having said that, I have returned to more traditional forms of song writing of late because it felt fresh for me to do so.”

When asked whether he feels he has settled more into his skin with age, David replies once again with a quote, this time from Ingmar Bergman I myself never felt young only immature, that’s a sentence which resonates” he adds, “I am surer of myself now, I know what I’ve got to offer, wisdom is hard won.” Wisdom is certainly hard won, it does not present itself as a reward for a life well lived, you have to pick up a few scars and chance your arm a little along the way. David could have made millions on the back of Japan and coasted through a solo-career going through the motions, instead he has forsaken fame and riches for the sake of being true to the type of music he wants to make. That is a rarity in a world which craves fame and awards it readily and unapologetically, to those who are willing to settle for the status quo and spew out material, which however inspired, often lacks true craftsmanship.

In his poem “Poetry for Supper,” R.S. Thomas writes of two poets arguing about their craft over the loud hubbub of a Welsh country pub. One poet argues that verse and creativity are just a natural process of unfolding ones emotions and letting them fall onto the page, while the other says that verse should be more carefully sowed together, with a firm knowledge of the craft, twinned with a good dose of the fact that the sweetness of life is distinctly perishable. Both methods can produce good work of course and David draws on elements of both, accompanied by thought and a rich experience of life, all while avoiding the smug self-satisfaction which befalls Thomas’s two poets, who sit “hunched at their beer in the low haze of an inn parlour, while the talk ran noisily by them, glib with prose.”

Images – 1,2 – Yuka Fujii/David Sylvian.com  3,4,5 – David Sylvian/David Sylvian.com

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2 Comments

  1. Victor Hewitt says

    Brilliant, put into words the feelings i have !
    I have been a follower of Davids since i first bought Gentlemen Take Polaroids all those years ago, and he has just got better and far more interesting.

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