The final phase of David Sylvian’s time as a Virgin records artist was marked by Dead Bees on a Cake – his celebration of love, human and divine – and then a series of releases that looked back across his career to that point. The Everything and Nothing compilation brought together highlights from his vocal work including some reworkings and unreleased material. Damage was remixed by Sylvian to reflect his take on the collaboration with Robert Fripp. Finally there was Camphor, the instrumental companion piece to Everything and Nothing. Amidst all of this there was the retrospective Everything and Nothing tour covering Japan, Europe, US and Canada.
I remember some misgivings as to what would follow next – would he sign for another major label? For all the comments about budgets being limited and the artist having to take account of the commercial needs of a record company, it seemed to me that Virgin had in the main been a positive partner. Key figures there had given Sylvian the freedom to pursue multiple musical paths, some far from the mainstream. However, the partnership had run its course, so what next?
The uncertainty didn’t last for long, as surprisingly quickly came confirmation that Sylvian had established his own label – samadhisound – and that the first release would be a new solo album, almost exactly a year after the release of the instrumental compilation. All seemed positive and it was with bated breath that the first fruits from samadhisound were anticipated. The new official website described the upcoming material as ‘an impromptu suite of songs for guitar, electronics and voice,’ which had been ‘crafted from improvisational sessions captured live in the studio.’
It’s hard to express the sense of disorientation I experienced when listening to the opening track of the new album for the first time. It was a complete shock. The recent releases had exuded a warm glow borne from an apparently blessed and blissful life, and from looking back over some twenty years of rich creativity. There was now a stark and austere landscape where the sunshine had been. I remember my immediate reaction being, ‘I don’t believe it, could this be the end of my love for David’s music?’ Now that was really unusual – one of the things that fascinated me about Sylvian’s work was that you had to spend time with the material to discover its depth. He truly made albums that revealed themselves slowly with many layers of texture and meaning. I’d long held a theory that a Sylvian album never truly slotted into place in his catalogue until the next one had been released: only then could you see it in the context and flow of his creative output. Notwithstanding all of that, I was totally floored by this new material.
It seemed to me at the time that Sylvian had jettisoned melody and that all of the romance of his singing had gone in favour of a half-spoken half-sung vocal technique. It’s so strange recalling those thoughts, because as I listen again to ‘Blemish’ now, there absolutely is melody, and he really does sing. There has, however, been a dislocation in Sylvian’s life and the forms of the past were not fit for the expression of his current truth.
When dark times hit after the In Praise of Shamans tour in 1988, Sylvian committed to collaborative endeavours to jolt himself into creativity and hopefully into an understanding of his situation, working with Rain Tree Crow, Holger Czukay and then Robert Fripp. In 2003, in the midst of the personal crisis of an imploding relationship, he instead paused ongoing collaborative work with his brother, Steve Jansen, and took to the studio entirely alone. What we experience in Blemish are music and lyrics reflecting the artist’s state of mind – in the very moment – and they are all the more potent for that immediacy. ‘A lot of things that I couldn’t face in my life I could face in the studio environment,’ Sylvian said. ‘I would close that door and start working and open myself to whatever came through. And often it was very negative emotions. And I thought well, I’ll just look straight at them, and more than that, I’ll take them further than I feel them in my daily life, because I wanted to go as far with them as I possibly could.’
In prior recordings, such as ‘I Surrender’, Sylvian’s lyrics gave expression to love in such a way that a song may be construed equally as a celebration of romantic love or heavenly devotion. His marriage was disintegrating but his spiritual practice remained strong. ‘By performing ritual worship or puja at the start of each day, particularly while recording Blemish, I was able to maintain the perspective of witness, or observer, to my own predicament while simultaneously being immersed in the true emotional and psychological experiences that governed my life at that time. This allowed me the strength to go deeper into exploring these states without the fear of being utterly overwhelmed by them.’ (DS, 2005)
Musically, the backing to the vocal on the title track is made up of treated guitar, electronic drones, hums and crackles which reverberate and repeat. The arrangements on Dead Bees… had a lush, often delicate beauty; on Blemish we rarely hear a discernible rhythmic or song structure. Right at the front of mix is Sylvian’s voice, intimate not in beauty but in vulnerability. An artist stripped bare.
The instrumentation owed something to the influence of the Indian devotional music which Sylvian had experienced through pursuing his spiritual journey: ‘There are basics [in Indian music] such as the drone, from which many have explored new avenues. The title track from Blemish is based on that principle…A drone can be simply that or it can take on greater significance depending on the interest, knowledge and aims of the writer/performer.’
Interestingly, the seeds of a new approach to songwriting itself had been planted after investigating – and rejecting – a possible new project at the time of the parting of the ways with Virgin. ‘A classical subsidiary of a major label that wanted to expand their horizons took an interest in me. Someone there put forward the suggestion that I take a look at the classical songbook, explore what already existed, and see if there wasn’t a project that I might like to pursue. It wasn’t such a bad idea so I did a little research, yet I came up empty-handed. There wasn’t enough out there that offered an interesting formal challenge or that hadn’t already been widely covered in one form or another. This got me thinking about alternate forms of popular song. What might I offer up to future generations for interpretation? Would it really have to be structurally more of the same? So I began a process of breaking things down, of embracing improvisation as a means of getting around my own limited ability to imagine new forms.’ (DS, 2010)
The approach adopted for Blemish gave Sylvian a whole new method: responding to his improvisations using an ‘automatic writing’ process where the first thought is the best thought. Vocals recorded as soon as the lyric is penned. This heightens our sense that these are experiences that are happening right now, not memories recalled, ordered and sanitised into verse/chorus/bridge…
The stream-of-consciousness lyrics use repetition to powerfully represent a mind going over and over events and trying to organise them, to make any sense of what’s going on:
‘And mine is an empty bed
I think she’s forgotten
And mine is an empty bed
She’s forgotten I know’
The fourteen minutes of the song include a cry for the world to slow down so that experiences can be assimilated:
‘Put the brakes on
Put the brakes on
‘Cause I’m failing fast
Can’t find the link
Between me and her’
…a sober recognition that there is more than one perspective:
‘And the trouble is there’s no telling
Just who’s right or who’s wrong’
…hope flickers defiantly:
‘The game’s not lost if I say it’s not,
And it’s not’
but despair lurks:
‘Life’s for the taking so they say,
Take it away’
Fragments of recent conversations seem to be introduced, such as, ‘Don’t crowd me pappy, got too much to think about’, or the ironic, yet deeply sad, ‘Don’t tell me love is all there is, I know, don’t I?’ It’s like being inside the turmoil of a mind where life has been turned upside down and there is literally too much to take on board.
Amongst the confusion the truth of the experience is certain, and the song’s key image starkly captures this, ‘Like blemishes upon the skin, truth sets in’. Asked why he chose this as the album’s title, Sylvian explained, ‘I think because I was dealing with emotions that it’s not easy to admit one is experiencing or feeling until they become undeniably present. And there’s a lyric on the opening track ‘Blemish’ alluding to the fact that there are some things in life you can’t turn away from – just like the discoloration of skin or whatever. And it’s just like: there it is. There’s my reality. And you have to look at it and face it. It was the kind of emotional equivalent of that.’
There were musical precursors to the sound vocabulary heard on ‘Blemish’ and one such track precedes it on my Vista playlist. At the start of the Everything and Nothing shows, just before Sylvian and his band took to the stage, a startling instrumental was played. It was unlike anything heard on Dead Bees... and arrested the attention of the audience. Included untitled on the CD in the tour brochure, it subsequently became the title track of the instrumental compilation Camphor. Here are the buzzes, the high frequency notes, the distortions and processed sound signals. The music comes abruptly to an end almost as if the arm of a record player has been purposefully jolted across the disc.
The track was apparently prepared for a sound-art exhibition curated by David Toop at the prestigious Hayward Gallery in London, Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound, staged between April and June 2000. Several artists produced works to be played in what was dubbed the Decompression Tunnel at the entrance to the gallery space. The title of the piece refers to the substance burnt during Hindu worship, Sylvian’s daily puja being an integral part of his practice throughout this time and an anchor during the recording of Blemish. Camphor is said to destroy evil energies and enhance the flow of positivity. It burns clean without leaving any residue, so symbolising spiritual progression and the removal of all impurities and human ego. Sylvian’s instrumental is an abrasive rather than a blissful soundscape, hinting perhaps that such a path is far from an easy one to follow.
‘Blemish’ cut across the elation of Dead Bees on a Cake every bit as harshly as a stylus across vinyl. It took me many, many listens over a period of months to appreciate this piece and the fact that a whole new sound and method was necessary to articulate what Sylvian needed to express. I now regard the song among the highlights of Sylvian’s output. It’s not warm, uplifting or traditionally beautiful, but it captures a truth that is every bit as profound and real as those songs that are. I appreciate every glitch, buzz and hum of it, each serving the portrayal of that moment of crisis and confusion.
David Sylvian – all instruments, vocal
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian. From Blemish by David Sylvian, samadhisound, 2003.
Recorded at samadhisound studio feb/march 2003
Lyrics © samadhisound publishing
David Sylvian – all instruments
Music by David Sylvian
Produced by David Sylvian. From Camphor by David Sylvian, Virgin, 2002.
All David Sylvian quotes are from interviews in 2003/4 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
More about David Toop’s Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound exhibition can be found at davidsylvian.net here.
‘What was important for me was to find a voice for these particular emotions. There was this interesting contrast: as I’d end a day’s work, I’d be on a creative high, I’d feel that I’d really covered some new ground, but at the same time I was feeling utterly drained because I’d put myself through the grind of giving voice to these powerfully conflicting emotions.’ David Sylvian, 2005