's extended flight from pop stardom in the middle years of the 1980s was an enthralling counterpoint to that decade's facile obsession with surface and relapse into materialism. While mainstream pop retreated from the innovations and musical openness of post-punk into the empty banalities of bean counting corporate rock, Sylvian among a few others appeared to plot a different idiosyncratic path routed in improvised music and jazz.
Central to this were his often inspired choices of collaborators such as the late Kenny Wheeler
, Jon Hassell
, Bill Nelson
, Riuichi Sakamoto and Robert Fripp
that opened a window on the leftfield and oblique for a new generation. This talent for collaboration in an improvised setting has been a feature of his work from his solo debut Brilliant Trees
through the two ambient pieces with Holger Czukay in the late 1980s to the use of among others Derek Bailey
on 2003`s masterful Blemish
and Evan Parker
on 2009's Manafon
. That pattern has continued here with the chosen musicians including Sylvian regulars electronic genius Christian Fennesz
and pianist John Tilbury
, this time augmented by writer/poet Franz Wright.
The album comprises a single 64 minute piece into which are woven Wright's prose poems that are drawn from his 2011 collection Kindertotenwald
. The choice of a single track for multiple poems alongside the gorgeous deluxe edition volume suggests an intention to provide a totally immersive experience. In truth this is almost certainly the best way to appreciate the work -like poetry needs more concentration per page than say a pulp novel, music like this is not going to work as background to a dinner party or housework. Few realised that when the remix album for Manafon
, Sylvian's last collection solely in his own name, included a lengthy instrumental track "When We Return You Won't Recognise Us" that this would turn out to be prophetic.
Wright's voice demands and commands attention, at times intimate, warm and humorous in a way that humanises and softens his sometimes bleak, often elliptical but always enthralling work. Poetry like this makes more sense when heard rather than read off the page and this is a fantastic introduction to a great poet. Part of the effectiveness of the collection comes from the way that Wright's voice is occasionally manipulated like an electronic instrument. So for example on "Nude with Handgun & Rosary" he is multi-tracked and phasing, distortions or glitches are introduced to give a sense of unease mirroring the narrator's disorientation and emotional distress. Yet in the pain there is usually some redeeming fact -for example "Transfusion" is built around an emergency hospitalisation, yet the narrator finds comfort in the love of those around him:
"To your entire satisfaction has anyone described the look of love? Mine neither; but I have seen it. I am seeing it right now. I am traveling up the beams of your eyes. I am slowly being lowered into a place of light."
Musically the piece develops the stylistic hallmarks and simple good taste of long form Sylvian ambient pieces like Plight and Premonition
or Approaching Silence
. Likewise if you enjoyed releases like Eivind Aarset
's Dream Logic
or Jan Bang
's Narrative from the Sub Tropics
last year this album should be very much to your liking. The structure of the piece, led by Wright's words, means that the musical highlights are difficult to adequately identify but they include the disjointed electronic pulse that precedes the poem "Blade" and the way that the single guitar note punctures the filmic string lines before the slowed down sampled voice adds a nightmarish feel to the poem's preoccupation with how things being closely examined can disappear. Similarly the way that the insistent piano heartbeat fades into the orchestral swell that follows the poem "Dead Seagull" is extremely effective.
Let's be clear, many are not going to be able to cope with a record with this much ambition, love of language and filmic improvisation. Reviews have been sharply divided between the ecstatic and the hatchet job -but for those prepared to listen this is an intriguing, emotionally unsettling, piece that will challenge, defying categorisation and analysis for many years to come. Isn't that what great music and art is meant to be all about?