samadhisound 2003-2014: Do You Know Me Now?
Well, do you?
What do you (or we) know of David Sylvian now? My guess is that, maybe it's been a while since you (or we) last checked in on him, listened to his music, took note of his lyrics or paid any attention to what he had to say.
Maybe it all dates back to that album with the illustrations of him on the front where he just looked exhausted, weary, a little pissed off even, with a slight shadow of stubble and messy hair partly concealed by his hat. This was not the image most would have associated with the elegant ideal of David Sylvian. Maybe that was the turning point. Maybe it was then that you (or we), stopped knowing about David Sylvian.
That album was 2003's Blemish, a record that was unexpectedly harsh and jagged, an album of long meandering songs that don't feel like songs at all, more like fragments of thoughts, scraps of diary entries. Tunes that were hard to discern. Blemish was Sylvian's first release on his own samadhisound label, and having felt his art was so undervalued whilst signed to Virgin, he finally felt free of commercial constraints, this was a record he needed to make.
Blemish was an album of glitchy noises, improvised sessions with avant garde guitarist David Bailey and a changing cast of musicians. Sylvian's lyrics, and his delivery, show us someone who is in the midst of a huge trauma, as well as all those woes with his old record company, Sylvian's marriage had collapsed. The rawness of his emotions at the end of the relationship are palpable, the unvarnished ...I came to hate her on The Only Daughter is direct, cold, unflinchingly personal.
Blemish is where this exquisite box set begins. Across 10 discs he revisits almost everything that he was involved in at samadhisound: solo albums and their accompanying remix versions, work with his brother Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman as Nine Horses, collaborations with the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, music for art installations and a handful of singles. Eleven rather busy years and, as you delve deeper into this collection, you come to realise that it's the most rewarding music that he ever made.
If the visceral nature of 'Blemish' was off-putting, then the 'Snow Borne Sorrow' album by Nine Horses was, despite its icy title, a much warmer and welcoming listen. From the haunted jazz of opener 'Wonderful World', it's apparent that we're in for a much smoother ride. Sylvian's lyrics, though one could never refer to him as a protest singer, are those of someone aware of the deteriorating societies around them. It is a place that has the illusion of wonder, but there is so much darkness at its core.
The Banality of Evil (it's title taken from Hannah Arendt's report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann) is more critical, it is a world of exclusions, of a 'benevolent' mother smothering a child, and tales of religious intolerance ('your skin is filthy/ and your gods don't look like god to me'). His most direct condemnation is given in the 'World Citizen' project with the late Ryuichu Sakamoto: ('We raise the men/Who run the fascist states/And we sell them arms/So they maintain their place').
There is the delight of following an artists narrative arc on such extensive, and largely chronological, collections such as 'Do You Know Me Now?' And, as with any reassessment of any music that initially seemed avant-garde and too 'difficult' to enjoy, there is the realisation of how familiar they now seem. When an artist is so far ahead, we just need to catch up with them. That said, there are still sections of 'Manafon' - the second 'solo' album included here, that are still too bewildering, too. Much like the only solo album that Mark Hollis made, it is a sparse and mostly hushed affair, although the loud crunch of guitars at the start of '125 Spheres' breaks the quiet in quite a shocking way. But it's the eleven-minute centrepiece 'The Greatest Living Englishman' where the acoustic improvisations, snippets of orchestral string sections, horns, and glitchy noises provide a soundtrack to the suicide note of a person of no real consequence.
This collection ends with the extraordinary 'There's a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight' A collaboration with the late American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright. This astonishing 64 minute piece draws on a selection of Wright's prose poems from his book Kindertotenwald (2011), which are soundtracked by Sylvian's music. The haunting piano suits Wright's weary recital. Then, when his sonorous voice is electronically manipulated (I'm particularly thinking of the moment at 37 minutes into the piece that shook me), it can be shocking. It is a stunning work, one of the last that Wright was involved in before his death. An excellent end to this collection.
Of course, ardent fans of David Sylvian may have most of these recordings in one form or another. But this fabulous 10" box, with new exclusive artwork, a 100 page hardback book with an essay by Sylvian and all the related album art as well, it is a very beautiful and cherishable object. In regard to the question posed by the title track (yes, I know it's a dying relationship song, but bear with me), this collection may allow the curious a route back in (the majority of this box set is streamable, I'm not suggesting that you just go out and spend £145 straight away on this based solely on a review!).
Across these 10 CDs, we have the chance to explore the work of someone who has been allowed to make the art in the way they want to. David Sylvian is an artist whose work you should get to know. Now.