David Sylvian: On the Periphery (The Solo Years)
Christopher E. Young
Malin Publishing Ltd
With his songs of spiritual and emotional quest, and unspeakable yearning, singer and composer David Sylvian really occupies his own musical cosmos. Often viewed as the quiet man of popular music who through hushed stillness and subtle, delicate and sometimes disturbing sounds, has created a body of work which provided an important bridge between different genres, eras and types of artists. As an artist, Sylvian has a shadow that has stretched across 30 years of music history, his immaculately written lyrics have provided inspiration for a number of artists. A restless soul and a poet, he became one of the most shape-shifting artists in contemporary music, ever searching and never resting on his laurels. All of that is marked by his deep, erogenous and penumbral voice which every time it thunders and resonates it serves as a wonderful reminder of the immortality of a good song.
In taking on the task of writing about David Sylvian's biography, journalist Christopher E. Young has collided with the difficulty of telling a story of an enigmatic story teller whose whole career has been marked with a distance between his audiences and his personal life. His book showcases that it is no easy task to write about a writer whose work is so language specific and simultaneously intimate and distant, an artist who very similarly to poet Leonard Cohen has set out on an inner pilgrimage and spiritual quest, which can be gleaned and traced through his music and lyrics.
The demise of his band Japan in 1982 has led him on a more adventurous path that saw him delving deeper into the worlds of avant-garde, jazz, ambient and improvised music, and his records have become a gathering place for some of the most respected, contemporary, adventurous and avant-garde musicians that have helped Sylvian to create his timeless music, and have buoyed his artistic integrity further. Fired up by the possibilities that have opened up to him it appears that there was an outburst of unbounded creativity that saw him releasing a string of introspective albums that still stand up as some of the finest achievements in contemporary music.
The book itself over spills with details of every song that Sylvian has written both for his regular releases as well as for those with other artists, and Young doesn't leave a stone unturned. The writer has really done his research about each record and has shed a light even to the most obscured ones, like Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities, (Virgin, 1985) which was a cassette only release and an obscurity in his discography, or the biographies of artists that have crossed path with him. But all throughout his career Sylvian has clearly separated his private life from his public persona and that side of him has been out of reach from the general public. Unlike plenty of others he never had to compromise his dignity by indulging in distasteful behavior of a celebrity star (as often is the case). Therefore it is difficult from the start to have a clear and objective biography about David Sylvian especially when he didn't have any involvement in the writing of it. Rather, the book had been constructed from a vast number of interviews, articles, reviews and press releases.
What is presented, instead of a regular celebrity biography, On the Periphery is more of a musicological study with attempts to give descriptions of Sylvian's motivations, state of being at the time of writing his songs or music, his religious beliefs and quests. While Sylvian has spent most of his life in the public eye, and has reinvented his music from record to record along the way, he hasn't got much better with the years at explaining what these dark, reproachful, and sometimes caustic songs, occasionally filled with religious allegory, self-examinations, disappointment, warm sentiments and spiritual reckoning are really about. And he has always deflected questions such as these.