‘Without wishing to embarrass you, I think that’s probably the finest piece of music that you have recorded to date.’ David ‘Kid’ Jensen made this comment interviewing David Sylvian on his UK Radio One show, having just played the title track from Sylvian’s new album two weeks ahead of its release, mid-June 1984. It was the first time that I – and I’m sure many others – had heard this piece.
All these years later, the song sounds to me as fresh as it did then, in no way dated, unlike most Pop records released in the mid ‘80s. Probably his finest recorded work then, and certainly standing amongst his finest to this day. Is there such a thing as a perfect song? If so, then this just might be it.
It captures a significant creative leap from the music of Japan to David Sylvian’s solo career. Japan’s final album Tin Drum was a triumph and was what had drawn me to this music in the first place. There is perhaps a similarity in the creation of a unique sound palette to serve the compositions, but the characteristics of the palette here are so very different. And the lyrical content is worlds away from the oblique imagery of Tin Drum. Truly a stunning musical evolution – and so mature from an artist still only 26 years of age.
There are two musicians who appear with Sylvian on every track on the album Brilliant Trees – Steve Jansen with his unique and sensitive drums/percussion, and Holger Czukay as creative catalyst and wild-card. Both play a vital part on the title track, but in the first phase of the song the distinctive soundtrack to the vocal is provided by the interplay between the breathy timbre of Jon Hassell’s trumpet and the organ-like keyboards of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Hassell’s contribution is so central that he is credited as co-writer of the music.
No longer working in a band context, a new approach was required to finding the right players for the songs: ‘I was working on a home demo of the title track for Brilliant Trees. As I began to elaborate on the arrangement I came up with a sound reminiscent of Jon’s trumpet on a Prophet 5 synthesiser and the connection was made.. ..I continued to arrange the material for the entire album and as I did certain connections continued to be made between given compositions and a musical ‘voice’.. ..Once it was obvious to me who these musicians should be we tracked them down and asked if they’d be willing to give the material a go. They heard nothing in advance of the sessions, most of the participants had never heard of me. It was due to their generosity and sense of adventure that the sessions happened at all.. ..Once in the studio I found that there were indeed wonderfully intuitive connections made.. ..It was the compositions themselves that cried out for certain contributors, voices. I tried to obey that call.’ (DS, 2004)
As the vocal finishes, so Steve Jansen’s percussion enters. I find it fascinating how the percussive elements are placed around and off the beat, creating a mesmerising atmosphere in the final extended phase of the song. It’s an instrumental section that hints towards the ethnic environment captured in the subsequent Words with the Shaman EP. Holger Czukay’s influence is perhaps more difficult to detect on the track ‘Brilliant Trees’, save perhaps for the monk-like voices that bring it to a close. However, recently Steve Jansen posted a short piece of video in memory of Holger on his sleepyard blog, showing him contributing guitar to the closing instrumental section. You can view it here:
This video captures a little of the episode described later by Sylvian: ‘at one point he was strumming his guitar and we could not get a clean sound on that guitar in the studio. So in the end I had him sitting outside the studio in a courtyard at a desk with a chair and a guitar on the table as he strummed with cables leading back into the studio. It was a very hot day and all the office workers had brought their desks out and were sitting in that courtyard. So he was sitting among these secretaries doing their work and he was having a great laugh. Between strums, he’d lean over to one of the ladies and say, “They’re paying me a lot of money to do this, you know!” He was so much fun to be with.’ (DS, 2009)
Lyrically, Sylvian is revealing himself more candidly than ever before – so much so that he said he felt embarrassed to be in a room when the song was being played. And with such poetry. I love the way the sentiment of the lines:
‘Hold my hands up to heaven,
But only you could know’
is echoed in the imagery of:
‘Reaching up like a flower
Leading my life back to the soil’
Sylvian has said that the song title references the feeling that you get when you stand on the crest of a hill and look out on nature around you, struck by the sheer enormity and beauty of it. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but you feel an affinity with the environment that you’re in, you’re able to exist within it without yearning to be back in the city or with people. I wouldn’t know one tree from another.. ..it’s just feeling something which is indescribable – a total peace within.’ (DS, 1984).
To me then, soil is no doubt a ‘dust to dust’ image of mortality, but it also references the fecundity and wonder of the natural world. Whilst this is undoubtedly a song tinged with loss, of a divorce from faith, it’s at the core of the album’s theme of ‘a celebration of life and nature’ (DS, 1984). Religious belief may be faltering, but there is such joy and hope in human love:
‘My whole world stands in front of me
By the look in your eyes
By the look in your eyes…
..Every hope I hold lies in my arms’
When I listen to the track as part of my Vista playlist, I follow it with the track ‘Empire III’ from Jon Hassell’s 1983 album Aka/Darbari/Java – Magic Realism. Hassell was fascinated in exploring how modern recording techniques allowed him to play his trumpet – sometime multi-tracked into a ‘chorus of trumpets’ – over and alongside recordings of traditional music from all around the world, creating a new ‘magic realism’. ‘Like the video technique of “keying in” where any background may be electronically inserted or deleted independently of foreground, the ability to bring the actual sound of musics of various epochs and geographical origins all together in the same compositional frame marks a unique point in history.’ (Jon Hassell, 1983).
The drums on the track somehow echo the ‘off-beat’ percussion in the second phase of ‘Brilliant Trees’ and the piece creates a kind of extended outro to the track and to the album.
‘Brilliant Trees’ is an exemplar of David Sylvian’s instinct for identifying the perfect collaborators for his compositions and melding their contributions to produce something that is recognisably his own. It is music and lyrics in perfect harmony. A favourite piece for me, forever.
Music by David Sylvian & John Hassell. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced by David Sylvian and Steve Nye. From Brilliant Trees, Virgin, 1984
Recorded in London and Berlin, 1983/1984
Lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Thank you to Steve Jansen for sharing the video clip of Holger Czukay
Detail from the Brilliant Trees sleeve photography by Yuka Fujii
‘Maybe I wasn’t equipped to write about myself directly before. Even ‘Ghosts’ was an outside observation. You don’t feel the person singing the song is experiencing those feelings. ‘Brilliant Trees’, the song, is obviously something genuine.’ David Sylvian, 1984