‘I Surrender’. The track that broke a long silence. In the previous five years only a handful of collaborative tracks had been released and indeed David Sylvian admitted that at times the happy circumstances of his life may have resulted in him leaving music behind altogether.
The first time I heard the song was on a tape of four tracks from the upcoming album which circulated the summer before the official release. These were near-final mixes, with only the finishing touches yet to be applied. Perhaps it was shared with Virgin as a taster for the long-awaited album? I missed out on a copy I saw advertised by a record dealer in the UK, but it wasn’t long before the recording was sent to me by another fan. I remember listening intently. It had been such a long wait that I’d doubted I would ever again have the pleasure of hearing a new solo record from the singer.
The previous Sylvian 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. ‘I Surrender’ was released as the lead single ahead of Dead Bees on a Cake, and is that album’s opening track both in its original form and in the extended ‘as it was always meant to be’ re-release of 2018. Starting life as one of a number of compositions intended for his wife, Ingrid Chavez, it was then adopted into the material being prepared for Dead Bees.. and became a seminal track for the developing project. ‘I think that the nature of that piece influenced some of the subsequent writing.. ..which is very interesting for me. In a sense I’d written a piece of music that I thought would appeal to my wife and inspire her as a writer, but ultimately it inspired me and influenced the musical direction of the album to some degree.’
‘I Surrender’ sets the tone for a record that, whilst acknowledging an undercurrent of disturbing darkness in life, shines with glorious images 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 with such clarity. 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 glimpsed the outline of a boy
His life of sorrows now collapsing into joy’
A more conventional image would be to soar with joy or happiness, but this is a ‘collapse’ – conveying tiredness with the old life, but also an individual giving way to an acceptance of love and truth. Sylvian has spoken about the surrender of the song title being a conscious act to set aside everything of the self in favour of the will of another. This was no simple act. ‘Obviously at different times, I’m more centred than others. It’s a constant process of surrender. 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.
‘There’s a great vulnerability in all surrendering, and surrendering to another person. You are forever going to feel like, how much are they giving me? Am I totally secure with this person? Are they going to reflect back the love that I’m putting out to them?
‘Ingrid and I found one another. It’s a fantastic partnership. We share in everything, and that’s why it works, because there is fantastic give and take. An enormous amount of surrendering to each other. And in the disciplines we are involved in, you actively surrender to your wife or husband – there is actually the process of seeing the divine in your partner. Which is very healthy. But we’ve also been looking to surrender to our guru, to God, or however you chose to express that.’
The couple were influenced by both Hindu and Buddhist teachings, each of which had something to say about the central concept of this track. ‘The ego is an illusion,’ explained Sylvian, ‘..’No self’ is for me an act of surrender. This act is a form of meditation that is reaffirmed with every breath.’ (DS, 2004)
An electronic press kit (EPK) was issued to promote Dead Bees on a Cake, comprising a video shot by David and Ingrid which gives a brief insight into their life and thinking at that time. The film, Time Spent, opens with Ingrid reading some words from the book You Have to Say Something in which are collected writings and talks by the Zen Buddhist teacher Dainin Katagiri. The volume is in three sections, the central one being titled ‘Egolessness’. ‘The depth of human life is ungraspable,’ says Katagiri. ‘In Buddhism, wisdom means penetrating this depth directly. Seeing the ultimate nature of existence, which is emptiness, you naturally begin to practice egolessness. Without creating any gaps between subject and object, you handle your life as both subject and object. In this complete and refined state of human activity, subject and object become one.’
‘I Surrender’ introduces a lyrical approach seen throughout Dead Bees.. where the love found with a partner and the love for the divine or 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 and allows each listener to form 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.’
‘The light in your eyes, the meaning of it all’
As listeners we are in no doubt that this is a song rooted in personal experiences that have been profoundly significant for the artist. ‘Once we have created a basis, a foundation of love and compassion from which to work (heart over mind) we can view the world with greater understanding. Understanding something intellectually (mind) and experiencing it as truth (heart) are very different things.. ..Truth as experienced, not as intellectual conception.’ (DS, 2004)
‘Outrageous cries of love have called you back
Derailed the trains of thought, demolished wayward tracks’
‘She throws the burning books into the sea
“Come find the meaning of the word inside of me”’
Perhaps the most poignant lyrical image is the pure wonder in:
‘I stand too close to see the sleight of hand
How she found this child inside the frightened man’
All of this plays out beneath the heavens which are invoked in cinematic fashion: we have bird-filled ‘summer skies’ and ‘moonlit skies’ where ‘the stars are all aligned’. The imagery of stars is often invoked by Sylvian to conjure a connection with the heavenly and the mysterious. The singer had wanted to make a promotional video for the single but was unable to interest Virgin in supporting it. ‘I’d have loved to have made a video for ‘I Surrender’ because I so wanted to explore the core subject matter of that piece visually.’ (DS, 2002)
There were sister releases of the single, each carrying different additional tracks – a promotional trick to boost sales but nevertheless welcome to fans. One intriguing visual concept was the use of a painting by British Indian conceptual artist Anish Kapoor on the first edition. Kapoor went on to create well-known public sculptures such as ‘Cloud Gate’ (or ‘the bean’) in Chicago and ‘Orbit’ in London for the 2012 Olympic park. In common with numerous other works by the artist the picture chosen for the cover of ‘I Surrender’ is catalogued as ‘Untitled’, but it has been seen by many as an artistic representation of female genitalia. Certainly there are many parallels in Kapoor’s work for what he interprets as an image of origin, healing and infinity. The year this picture was created Kapoor told BOMB magazine that he was ‘trying to engage with the place from which I emerge as an artist, which I feel to be feminine. I feel my creative self to be feminine. I feel that creativity itself is feminine. I think this is also very Eastern.’ One could see how the painting might be considered consistent with the theme of ‘I Surrender’, given the gender of those adored. I’m sure that, as far as the record company were aware, it was an abstract piece of artwork…
Musically the piece includes a rare use of solo flute with the expressive playing of Lawrence Feldman, a veteran New York based player who had worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto on the albums Sweet Revenge and Smoochy prior to Sylvian and Sakamoto hooking up for the Dead Bees.. sessions. Percussion is provided by Sylvian’s brother, Steve Jansen, and it’s a significant collaboration being their first released music since the fall out after the Rain Tree Crow project. Kenny Wheeler returns on 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. Meanwhile, Ryuichi Sakamoto contributes Rhodes and some beautiful orchestration which enhances the cinematic feel. For the first time, we hear guitarist Marc Ribot. This was a project where Sylvian found the right collaborative contributions hard to come by, but he has spoken enthusiastically of how much great material was laid down in a relatively short session with Ribot, his guitar gracing many of the tracks on Dead Bees..
‘The flugelhorn plays an important part, so does the arrangement, the string arrangement, and also the flute itself. Obviously the centrepiece of the album, in that it encapsulates the theme of the album – if there is one – ..it’s encapsulated in ‘I Surrender’ in such a way it’s probably my favourite track on the album. It’s a love song on many levels.’
And how would Sylvian describe that theme? ‘I don’t work with concepts but because it’s borne out of that period in my life there are unifying aspects that run throughout a lot of the material, and I felt that was themes of… songs of devotion, of love, and celebratory songs: celebrating life. I guess that’s the overall feeling; it’s a mood of celebration, celebrating life, both its dark and light sides, and feeling the sense of intoxication. Like being intoxicated whether with the loved one, with life in general, or with God, divine, whatever. That sense of overwhelming joy, that you can feel through love, through love with an individual or through love with whatever.’
When I listen to this track as part of my Vista playlist I precede it with the piece ‘You Know, You Know’ by The Mahavishnu Orchestra (from The Inner Mounting Flame (1979)), a sample from which provides one of the driving motifs throughout ‘I Surrender’. In 1991, Massive Attack had drawn from the same source for ‘One Love’, which may or may not have influenced Sylvian’s approach.
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.
Contains a sample from ‘You Know, You Know’ performed by The Mahavishnu Orchestra, licensed courtesy of Columbia.
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
‘Untitled’ 1989 by Anish Kapoor was used for the sleeve by permission of the artist and the Lisson Gallery.
All quotes by David Sylvian are from interviews in 1999. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here. Originally published in April 2018 and subsequently revised and expanded in July 2020.
‘′I Surrender’ was as clear an account of a personal experience as I was able to make at the time. I felt it was successful in relaying it, but it isn’t a language I feel comfortable returning to.’ David Sylvian, 2004