My reading about David Sylvian leads me to believe hes followed a rock avant-garde path that includes the inevitable collaborations with Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, and other musicians who are usually described as cutting edge. I dont mean that to sound dismissive. Those musicians and many of the others Sylvian has worked with can be maddeningly pretentious, but they are often brilliant and exhilarating (sometimes theyre all three of those things on the same record).
Im not going to pretend that I have a wide knowledge of Sylvians work, so Ill just sketch in some background. He was a founding member of the British band Japan, which recorded from 1974 until 1982. Their music is somewhat reminiscent of Roxy Musics, and their later work seems to show hints of the larger ambitions Sylvian would pursue. Sylvian went on to work with jazz artists Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler, as well as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Fripp, and Nelson.
Sylvian does the singing and most of the instrumental work on Blemish, which has an isolated, home-studio feel to it. The very pretty drawings on the CD cover show Sylvian in a snowbound setting, and the recording sounds like something youd hear from a musician who just built a fire, poured some wine, and let his mind wander in the studio. Free-jazz guitarist Derek Bailey joins Sylvian on three tracks (he gets co-writing credit for them) and Christian Fennesz helps him on the closing song, but theres intense individuality to this music. Sylvians vision and musical presence -- especially his voice -- hold things together.
The first sound you hear on Blemish is feedback from an old tube guitar amp set on tremelo. Sylvian plucks the open strings below the bridge and, as those sounds mingle and sustain, he adds electronically processed tones. When Sylvian begins to sing, theres a striking contrast at first between the odd instrumental background and his dramatic vocals. He sounds very much like Scott Walker, the expatriate American singer who has spent more than 30 years in the UK pursuing a life in music with a single-mindedness similar to Sylvians.
The sessions on Blemish were improvised and Sylvian later sang over them, presumably improvising the lyrics and the melodies he sings. After a few plays, the melodies seem to flow logically with the music. Sylvian sings with tremendous force and emotion, and as a lyricist he tackles everything from the joys and complexities of love ("Blemish," "The Heart Knows Better") to the emotional dynamics of family life ("The Good Son"). "Late Night Shopping" suggests that the mundane details of life can be both meaningful and perilous.
A line from "The Heart Knows Better" captures the careful balance that Sylvian maintains on the disc between the purely intellectual and the emotional: "The minds divisive, but the heart knows better." Listened to by themselves, the instrumental tracks would probably be insufferably dry post-modern noise exercises, but Sylvians heart and mind cause them to resonate and connect.
This isnt easy music to listen to -- you have to adapt to it. If Im in the wrong frame of mind, Derek Baileys plonkings on the guitar dont sound that much different from my childrens. Music that can be broadly defined as avant-garde, whether its Cecil Taylor, Captain Beefheart, PIL, or John Cage, can seem like a con to someone who hasnt enough patience to let it find its way. And some of it is a con. The best of it, however, can show us beauty in sounds that at first seem harsh and ugly. Separating the real from the fake can take several attentive listens. It took me a few times to catch on to Blemish, but Sylvians openness to sound and to his own emotions is both convincing and moving.
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