‘I Surrender’. The track that broke a long silence. In the preceding years only a handful of collaborative tracks had been released and indeed Sylvian admitted that at times the (happy) circumstances of his life may have resulted in him leaving music behind altogether.
The previous David Sylvian solo album, Secrets of the Beehive (1987), had ended with a question: ‘is our love strong enough?’ His reappearance in 1999 was imbued with a sense of profound love discovered.. ..and embraced. The track was released as a single ahead of the album Dead Bees on a Cake, and is the opening track of that album both in its original form and in the extended ‘as it was always meant to be’ re-release of 2018. It started life as a composition for his wife, Ingrid Chavez, to respond to, but was then adopted into the material being prepared for Dead Bees.. The piece sets the tone for an album that, whilst it recognises an undercurrent of disturbing darkness in life, shines with images of the glorious nature of love and fulfilment. At over nine minutes long, it holds the listener in that sun-lit moment and the soloists are given free rein to respond to the spirit of the song.
I love the way the lyrics convey the emotions clearly and creatively. The journey from the place where the ‘flowers died, embittered from the start’, across the ‘bridge of sighs’ to the point where:
‘I looked back and saw the outline of a boy
His life of sorrows now collapsing into joy’
Normally you soar with joy or happiness, but this is a ‘collapse’; reflecting the tiredness with the old life, but also a collapse of the ego into an acceptance of a higher emotion and truth. Sylvian has spoken about the surrender of the song title being a conscious act to set aside everything of the self, particularly to the will of the guru and the divine. This was no simple act: ‘Some people have intimated to me that taking the path of surrender is an easy option – I never felt that to be true. I’ve always felt like it’s the hardest thing to surrender your will to a higher power or whatever. Or anyone, or anything. It’s not a one-time event, it’s an ongoing process that you have to constantly reaffirm in every second of your life.’ (DS, 1999)
The song introduces an approach seen throughout Dead Bees.. where the love he has found with his wife and the love for the divine or his spiritual teacher are sung of interchangeably. We are never sure whether these are songs celebrating human love or songs of devotion to God/the Divine Mother of Hindu teaching – whose love Sylvian had discovered in just as profound a way as in his unexpected marriage. The pieces work both ways…
‘I’ve travelled all this way for your embrace,
Enraptured by the recognition on your face
Hold me now while my old life dies tonight and I surrender’
The ambiguity brings depth of meaning and allows the listener to bring their own interpretation: ‘the idea is that people can come to these pieces and relate to whatever, whomever, they choose. If I’m singing a song to my wife, my guru or my god, there’s no significance other than what suits them.’ (DS, 1999)
All of this plays out beneath the heavens which are invoked in cinematic fashion: we have ‘southern skies’, ‘open skies’, bird-filled ‘summer skies’ and ‘the stars are all aligned’. The imagery of stars is something that Sylvian often invokes to conjure a connection with the heavenly and the mysterious.
Perhaps the most profound and personal image of all is the pure wonder in:
‘I stand too close to see the sleight of hand
How she found the child inside the frightened man’
Musically the piece includes a rare use of solo flute with the expressive playing of Lawrence Feldman. Percussion is provided by Sylvian’s brother, Steve Jansen – it’s a significant collaboration being their first released music since the fall-out after the Rain Tree Crow project. Kenny Wheeler returns to play flugelhorn for the first time since Gone to Earth. His lyrical playing adds to the sense of joy and release in the track; I particularly enjoy those moments where he is playing right at the top of the register of the instrument, at the edge of a note and squeak of breath, straining with emotion as he performs. Ryuichi Sakamoto contributes rhodes and some beautiful orchestration which enhances the cinematic feel. For the first time, Marc Ribot appears. On an album where Sylvian found the right collaborative contributions hard to come by, he has spoken enthusiastically of how much great material was laid down in a relatively short session with Ribot, and his guitar contributions are heard on many of the tracks on Dead Bees..
When I listen to this track as part of my Vista playlist I precede it with the piece ‘You Know, You Know’ by Mahavishnu Orchestra (from The Inner Mounting Flame (1979)), a sample from which provides one of the driving motifs throughout ‘I Surrender’.
I follow ‘I Surrender’ with the solo piece ‘Hearken’ by Kenny Wheeler from his album Dream Sequence (2003), which is produced by a later collaborator, Evan Parker. The track is a glorious opportunity to concentrate on Kenny’s craft and includes some emotional playing which again takes him to the edge of his register and technique. I was privileged to hear Kenny play live a couple of times and was so saddened to hear of his passing in 2014. I played this track on the news of his death and do so again whenever I want to remind myself of his immense musicianship.
Lawrence Feldman – flute; Steve Jansen – percussion; Marc Ribot – guitar; Ryuichi Sakamoto – rhodes; Kenny Wheeler – flugelhorn; David Sylvian – guitar loops, keyboards, samples, vocal; string arrangement by David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, orchestrated by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Music, lyrics and production – David Sylvian. From Dead Bees on a Cake, Virgin, 1999.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
‘..probably my favourite track on the album. It’s a love song on many levels.’ David Sylvian, 1999