Manhattan, 10th September 2001. ‘That’s where the story starts,’ David Sylvian confirmed to the host of BBC Radio 3’s Mixing It programme. ‘That’s because I was in New York the night before the attack took place. I was there with my wife and family, and Ingrid turned around to me and said, “There’s a really ominous feel in the city tonight, you know, that something awful is going to happen.”’
A premonition? ‘Yes, something like that. And the skies opened, the rain poured down on this very warm day in September.
‘And there was this homeless person, I’d actually seen her some years before. She looked like she was on her last legs. She was wrapped in a garbage bag and that was the extent of her clothing. She held it up over her breasts. Her back was completely naked. I find these images quite alarming in a city like New York. She was on 5th Avenue for Christ’s sake.
‘We had split up, my family and I, but we both passed this woman. And as we reconvened, we said we have to go back and help her and get her out of the rain. She was gone when we returned…But it just stayed in my mind as kind of a powerful image of what was to take place. The changes in the country and everything. It was like a small seed that burrowed its way into my mind and stayed there as a very powerful image.’
‘Her skin was darker than ashes
And she had something to say
‘Bout being naked to the elements
At the end of yet another day
And the rain on her back that continued to fall
From the bruise of her lips
Swollen, fragile, and small’
An encounter with a destitute African American woman on the streets of one of the world’s proudest cities, in the ‘land of the free’ and just a short stroll from the Statue of Liberty spoke of a hollow reality at the core of the American dream. What was the cost? And surely this individual’s plight was but a microcosm of the experience of millions of others further from home?
‘It was a very disturbing image and it seemed to become somewhat iconic for me… or emblematic of everything that followed. I just used that image as the opening, for the opening verse of the piece, and it kind of set the mood for the rest of the song. I didn’t really know where it was going at first but once I started with that, I realised what I was dealing with…
‘I think it speaks well for itself,’ Sylvian said of the lyric, ‘I don’t really want to get into more of an explanation than that. But there is this underlying feeling about life in America right now where you could say that all morals or values are up for grabs; that this American capitalism has really begun to undermine, I think, the value system which we work with here and I find that quite disturbing. Well, more than disturbing. And I guess I try and touch upon that in some respect, to encourage us to move away from that way of thinking about life and to return to something that is more embedded deeply in a sense of human values.’
‘And the bills that you paid with were worth nothing at all
A lost foreign currency
Multi-coloured, barely reputable
Like the grasses that blew in the warm summer breeze
Well she offered you this to do as you pleased’
David and Ingrid had zig-zagged the States by road and been astounded at the majesty of the landscapes across the country, their sense of freedom and adventure captured in ‘Wanderlust’ and the never-completed ‘Beautiful Country’.
‘The redwoods, the deserts, the tropical ease
The swamps and the prairie dogs, the Joshua trees
The long straight highways from dirt road to tar
Hitching your wheels to truck, bus, or car’
Yet the unrelenting focus on cash and profit amongst those in positions of power has become all-pervasive, to the point where an appreciation of the beauty of nature has been lost in society’s order of things – as has a basic sense of the value and sanctity of human life.
‘And the lives that you hold in the palm of your hand
You toss them aside small and damn near unbreakable
You drank all the water and you pissed yourself dry
Then you fell to your knees and proceeded to cry’
A return to the image of an individual on the fringes of society or a metaphor for something else? For me, the vulgar reference to one who ‘drank all the water and…pissed yourself dry‘ speaks contemptuously of somebody who takes everything good for themselves to the detriment of others, yet their excess garners no benefit whatsoever. The prayers and tears of those who rule without justice or compassion do not ring true.
Writing for the official announcement of Nine Horses, Marcus Boon observed that the album contained ‘caustic words about the excuses our leaders manage to find not to “love thy neighbour”.’ It’s never truer than in this song.
The Republican presidency of George W. Bush commenced in January 2001 and following the events of September that year, armed conflict with Iraq and Afghanistan ensued as part of the ‘War on Terror’. It was pointed out to Sylvian that it was clear to whom the ‘democracy of dunces with a parasite’s kiss’ was referring…
‘I live in the United States and it’s a very difficult time to be an American citizen. You are obviously at odds with the administration’s global policies, and to live in a country where you are basically paying taxes that support these policies, you know a lot of people are in conflict with that. And a lot of people have left the States as a result.’
In 2002, around the time the lyric to ‘Atom and Cell’ was written, Sylvian spoke of 9/11. ‘Politically speaking, I was also horrified by the response to the tragedy. The dialectics of good and evil, the table thumping propaganda, which still shows no signs of abating. In fact I’ve never been subject to so much unequivocal propaganda in my life (the unbalanced reporting from the US media does nothing to remedy this). I continue to be deeply ashamed of the US response to world concerns and events. Bush’s position on the US in relation to its role in the world is progressively isolationist. He once made the promise that should he become President the world would be a more peaceful place. An astoundingly arrogant statement to make under any circumstances. On the contrary, in my opinion, this one man and his polices have begun to do enormous damage to the stability and peace of the world.
‘There are many forms of terrorism in the world. America’s hands are by no means clean in this respect. We have exploited other cultures, other resources to sustain our own interests and economy. If thousands die of hunger because of our nation’s policies, are we not to blame? If atrocities fall inside of the law does that make them morally acceptable? Isn’t it impossible to speak unequivocally of good and evil in the context of world politics today?’
‘Nothing will ever be as it was
The price has been paid with a thousand loose shoes
Pictures are pasted on shop windows and walls
Like a poor man’s Boltanski
Lost one and all.’
This verse takes us to the devastation of the New York streets in the aftermath of the attacks and to the images beamed 24×7 around the world. There were the shoes of those caught up in the atrocity, lost as they fled or sought desperate escape. Simple signs of identity, slipped on by routine at the start of a day that seemed like any other, but now poignant signs of loss. Also, the pleading signs pasted around town by those seeking contact with loved ones or friends. Photographs copied hastily in the hope that they could spark the memory of someone who might know of their whereabouts. Sylvian’s parallel is with the art of Christian Boltanski who often worked with photographs of anonymous individuals and with discarded clothing, the mystery of identity provoking uncomfortable reflection on the transience of life.
The closing cycle of the song plays on the words ‘sell’ and ‘cell’, counter-posing the monetising of everything with a call for compassion towards the living.
Bid your farewell
Give yourself over
Pushing your consciousness
Deep into every atom and cell’
‘Blemish and Nine Horses kind of exist side by side in terms of thematic content,’ said Sylvian of his first two samadhisound albums. ‘Whereas Blemish describes the breakdown of a personal relationship, Nine Horses tends to generally take a broader look at the same issue. So it’s a more socially aware album. I’d say more or less each piece deals with conflict at some level or another. But it also promotes compassion and tolerance. These are the abiding themes of the album as I see them.’
The track was borne from the earliest experiments between Sylvian and Jansen at Sylvian’s nascent home studio in New Hampshire. ‘We were really just working on the relationship between Steve and myself…trying to find some kind of common ground to know that there was a project worth pursuing. That was the initial stages.’
‘Atom and Cell’ was one of the earliest pieces to take shape – long before a collaboration with Burnt Friedman was considered or the merging of that with the Jansen/Sylvian project. The music came together quickly but it immediately became apparent that the brothers’ preferred painstaking style of production would be the way forward.
‘With Steve and I, one of us would come up with something that would get the ball rolling and we’d take it from there. For instance, I came up with the cyclic keyboard melody for ‘Atom and Cell’. Steve initially came up with a very different percussion part in response. I wrote the lyric whilst he was programming the drums… there it was in essence… a few hours work. Then comes the refining. Months later Steve scrapped the percussion pattern and replaced it with something more refined, added the vibes. I added the chorus vocals, Arve [Henriksen], Ryu [Sakamoto].
‘This is essentially, how we’ve always worked together. A refining of ideas and sound over time but essentially the song is there from stage one.’
Jansen: ‘Initially, David and I explored our renewed relationship through composition, trying many possibilities, writing off the cuff with improvisation techniques as well as composition through sound design. Much time had lapsed since we’d last collaborated together on a recording so it seemed there were many paths to wander. Ultimately we felt that our more considered works were a truer representation of our combined sensibilities and interests. Almost without word it became understood that the more laborious path would, as usual, yield the best fruit. The opportunity to take our time and find our footing was never more afforded and prevalent than now, with samadhisound up and running.’
The song signalled the way forward both in music and lyrics. ‘One of the earlier pieces to surface was ‘Atom and Cell’ and so that led the way for me,’ Sylvian asserted. ‘I was particularly happy with the lyric. It had a slightly political edge. It was a shift for me as a writer. So I guess that set the mode in which the rest of the album was considered. The pieces are often quite long and repetitive, they are often built around loops of one kind of another, and so it fell upon the vocal to make the most of that possible.’
I love the moments when both the synth loop and the percussion withdraw to emphasise the absence of the artistic and the heavenly in our stark and functional modern existence:
‘And where is the poetry?
Didn’t she promise us poetry?’
‘And where are the stars?
Didn’t she promise us stars?’
The Sylvian and Sakamoto collaboration ‘World Citizen’ was released ahead of Nine Horses but this did not reflect the order of composition. ‘Atom and Cell’ was a political song ‘in a slightly more oblique manner than possibly ‘World Citizen’, which was a little bit more didactic I suppose,’ Sylvian explained. ‘I wanted to again address 9/11 and what followed on from that event, the wars that have taken place since.’
‘In fact,’ he concluded, ‘‘Atom and Cell’ is a more successful political piece for me than ‘World Citizen’.’
A video for the song was created by Japanese artist and photographer Shoko Ise. It’s a long way from the promotional music videos of that or any other time. The perspective taken by Ise resonates with the story of the song. As we see the passers-by in a busy urban street, most are depicted from the waist down. It’s like we are seeing life through the eyes of that homeless woman on 5th Avenue. Everyone busily moves on by, oblivious to the onlooker.
And who are all these people? Like Christian Boltanski’s subjects, they are unnamed and unknown. Each has a story, a history, a family, yet all are anonymous within the throng. Maybe too there is a hint of that image after 9/11, as we see no faces, but many shoes. Selected phrases from the lyric appear spelled out in letters that then tumble from the screen, once again emphasising the ‘sell’ versus ‘cell’ wordplay.
Shoko would go on to produce videos for Steve Jansen’s live performance of Slope, including visuals to accompany a piece called ‘Dance of Separation’ which is reminiscent of her work on ‘Atom and Cell’.
The line-up of musicians for the song did not include Burnt Friedman or the cast of artists he brought to Nine Horses. It is essentially a Jansen/Sylvian track with Ryuichi Sakamoto recording piano in New York and Arve Henriksen adding trumpet in Norway. I love the emotion and colour that each affords to the arrangement. Sylvian: ‘I called in Ryuichi and Arve Henriksen, both of whom felt intuitively right for the respective pieces they contributed to. Arve’s playing goes straight to the heart, he’s a fantastically empathetic player.’
I love to play ‘Atom and Cell’ side-by-side with the only other project I’ve heard featuring both Sakamoto and Henriksen. This was the second release in the kizunaworld series, downloads that were made available to support charities following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The track was a version of Sakamoto’s title track for the project, ‘Kizuna World – the Arve Henriksen & pf mix’, and unfortunately appears no longer to be available having been created exclusively in aid of the relief effort. The creative voices of both artists are melded together in service of a touching lament for the fallen.
‘Atom and Cell’
Arve Henriksen – trumpet; Steve Jansen – sample programming, percussion, keyboards, Ryuichi Sakamoto – piano; David Sylvian – keyboards, vocals; Tommy Blaize, Beverlei Brown, Andrea Grant, Derek Green – backing vocals
Music by Steve Jansen & David Sylvian. Lyrics by David Sylvian.
Produced and arranged by Steve Jansen & David Sylvian. From Snow Borne Sorrow by Nine Horses, Samadhisound, 2005.
Mixed by David Sylvian with Steve Jansen at samadhisound
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
The featured image is a detail from a promotional photograph by Kevin Westenberg posted on the official Nine Horses micro-site on the release of Snow Borne Sorrow. Taken at Poplar station on the Docklands Light Railway, London, September 2005.
All quotes from David Sylvian and Steve Jansen are from interviews in 2005/6 unless indicated. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.
Download links: ‘Atom and Cell’ (iTunes)
Physical media links: Snow Borne Sorrow (Amazon)
‘It was pouring with rain in New York City that evening and there was this African American woman on 5th Avenue dressed in nothing but a garbage bag and she had pulled the garbage bag back over her breasts, she was arched over, she looked pretty strung out. It was a very disturbing image…’ David Sylvian, 2005
More about Snow Borne Sorrow:
The Banality of Evil
A History of Holes
The Day the Earth Stole Heaven
The Librarian – Friedman & Liebezeit, feat. Sylvian
10 thoughts on “Atom and Cell”
Always good to hear the story behind the music. The article creates another layer to experience. I will go back and listen again after reading this. Thank you.
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Thank you, Linda. Prompting a reader to listen again to the music sums up what the blog is all about for me. So thanks for sharing that!
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Another excellent article, VB. The early paragraphs are very moving. The individual that was ‘up against it’, I hope that things have improved for her (is that too much to expect for any individual? No, I think it isn’t.) I remember where I was as news of 9/11 was flashed over the TV screen, in the High Holborn cafe, I was sitting in, eating my lunch at the time. I was horrified by what I, and the world, saw. It’s interesting that David was in New York with his family, only the day before.
Three things however, made me smile about the piece. The photo of the brothers together, the reference to “Atom and Cell”, and the further involvement of Sakamoto and Henrikson et al. This site is a wonderful, insightful, subjective, archive, of the work of David Sylvian and is a great compliment, in my view, to David’s official site, as well as being, a joy to his fans.
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Thank you, Jeremy, for reading and for such generous words.
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Very thoughtfully written piece.
As a British man ..now a US citizen..
David’s written and thoughtful prose on the subject of 9/11 -AtomCell , really struck home on the changes and safety of the US… although as David/ Ryuichi work on World / Citizen and even to some extent Forbidden colors.the power of music and influence is so true and expressed beautifully the political climate and wealth disparity alarms me … I live in Boston , US.. since 92.. 30 years now but home 🏡 will always be Kent 🇬🇧🇬🇧
Long may your words/ 🎶🎼🎸 play a large role in your global philosophy..- a gifted artist .
Blessings and prayers with you all…
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As always, a wonderful piece and thankyou for alighting me as to the songs history, i always assumed that it was about repressed Muslim women. Who came up with the idea of having backing singers as it is something Sylvian rarely used? They add so much to the vocal. Funny when i was listening to this track again i was reminded of Pop Song. A great song from a great album.
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Thanks Declan. I think I have some artist quotes on the use of backing singers on this album – I hope to write about that when I cover ‘Serotonin’ for a future article.
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I will look forward to that and that you for all your hard work
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if you see a fork in the road take it.
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Quite ironic that someone who speaks of morals and values seems to lack those very things This is someone, after all, who refused to let his brother sell his then-recent solo album Slope on the tour they did in 2007. An album which was released on his own label, and which would have helped to promote his own label, had he allowed his brother to sell it at the merch table at their shows. But Sylvian refused. Because the tour was about his career, not Steve’s. What a wonderful person.
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