If there is a single theme that runs through David Sylvian's Manafon, it's simply: "No hope...no doubt." Like 2003's Blemish, it's a rather difficult record, and its emotional and spiritual cousin. It's dark, fraught with emotional and musical difficulty, nonlinear sounds and improvised music, and lyric themes that express a tension between hopelessness and the love of everyday life. The title comes from the name of a village in Wales where the poetR.S. Thomas once lived, studied the Welsh language, and published his first three volumes. He is the principal muse for Manafon, though there are others. Much of the writing reflects -- like Blemish -- Sylvian's own struggles, though they are often (but not always) relegated to the third person. The studio musicians have either worked with Sylvian before or with one another: they include saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist John Tilbury, guitarists Christian Fennesz and Keith Rowe, members of Polwechsel, and turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshihide, among others. There are no drums. It must also be said that the presence of the late Derek Bailey (who worked on Blemish) is felt deeply on this recording, which was created on three continents. Despite these vanguard players, Manafon is not an avant jazz or "new music" record. It blurs all categories beautifully, and while it makes listeners work a bit, its payoff is a dark and luxuriant dream that cascades, floats, hovers, and changes both shape and shade often, and does so seamlessly.
Sylvian's voice is front and center; it is so prominent that despite all of the instrumentation, in whatever musical conflagration chosen for a particular track, the voice is almost on its own. His phrases and lyrics were either improvised to fit the live sessions or were written in response to them. There are numerous electronic effects, but they never intrude on Sylvian's voice, which is simultaneously emotionally engaged in the process and yet detached from the actual emotions expressed in the songs themselves -- even when they are confessional in nature. The album opener, "Small Metal Gods," is an example, and one of the most moving tracks on the set. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, laptop, electronics, bass, and cello, he sings "...You balance things like you wouldn't believe, when you should just let things be/Yes you juggle things 'cause you can't lose sight of the wretched story line/It's the narrative that must go on, until the end of time/And you're guilty of some self-neglect, and the mind unravels for days/I've told you once, yes a thousand times, I'm better off this way...." Other standouts include "Random Acts of Senseless Violence," with stellar work byYoshihide (who was instructed to use only the sounds of classical or modern chamber music), as well as Tilbury's ghostly piano. Parker shines on "The Rabbit Skinner," the lone instrumental "The Department of Dead Letters," and "Emily Dickinson." "Snow White in Appalachia" contains one of the most beautiful "melodies" on the set, and the closing title track is something so abstract yet memorable that it sums up both Sylvian's lyrical and musical themes as a strangely beautiful construction of their own even if at times they are disturbing. Manafon is a quiet yet forceful stunner, a recording that, if heard, is literally unforgettable.
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