Twenty-first century David Sylvian is the negative image of latter day Scott Walker. Both musicians have a disrobing voice with a talent for enigmatically lingering lyrics. However, where Walker chooses to envelope his vocals in obsessed disharmonic eruptions, Sylvian opts for the absolute minimum. Sylvian’s last few records feature his melancholy voice on stilts of improvisation. It creates the same dramatic effect as Walker’s distraught experiments but with a more austere tension. You are alone with Sylvian. It’s a face-to-face confrontation.
Manofan (2009) is characteristically stark. There is so much negative space, it weighs down on everything else. The terse contributions of Christian Fennesz, John Tilbury, Evan Parker, Otomo Yoshihide and members of Polwechsel (among others) practically fight the silence to be heard. Sylvian’s subtly melodic and lucid voice becomes the breath of each track. When he goes silent for too long, you gasp for a personal connection. An album of variations is almost counterintuitive: by filling the negative space, the whole affect is lost. Died in the Wool, however, succeeds. By giving some of the original players the opportunity to react to the written material rather than the reverse, an entirely new sound emerges.
Manofan impresses despite a lack of graspable music thanks to Sylvian’s poetic imagery. He is a masterful and patient lyricist. On Died in the Wool, the music has a chance to be empathetic to this imagery. Manofan‘s opener, “Small Metal Gods,” is an exhausted plea for mental independence, underpinned by shallow guitar plucks and midnight ambience. It takes on more exact meaning with the accompaniment of composer Dai Fujikura. Died in the Wool‘s variation begins yearning, if not hopeful, thanks to deftly swooning chamber strings. When Sylvian’s lyrics turn bitter, though (“I’ve placed the gods in a zip-lock bag / I’ve put them in a drawer / They’ve refused my prayers for the umpteenth time / So, I’m evening up the score”), so do the strings. Descending disharmonies give the poem a sourness and disgust that the original version never quite reached.
Fujikura is prevalent throughout the album, and his presence is compelling. The chamber strings return on “The Last Days of December.” They don’t quite circle and echo the lyrical sentiments as they did on “Small Metal Gods,” but instead work as a tension between the melodic vocals and the bleak lyrics. During a rework of “Snow White in Appalacia,” Fujikura composes a skipping, fluttering, harmonically complex backdrop for Sylvian. He also gives “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” the unpredictably dreadful accompaniment it deserves. The potent lyrics (“The targets hit will be nonspecific / We’ll roll the numbers, play with chance / All suitable locations and planned in advance / Someone’s back kitchen / Stacked like a factory with improvised devices”) become all the more unsettling.
Producers Jan Bang and Erik Honoré similarly rework “Emily Dickinson” and “The Greatest Living Englishman” for a more concise and organic listen, scrapping the minimal post-jazz setting of Manofan for 21st century chamber pieces. They also work with Sylvian to put two of Dickinson’s own poems to music. “I Should Not Dare” stands out for its relatively buoyant pace and warm melodies. Christian Fennesz contributes expanding pockets of Jonny Greenwood-esque soundwaves, while Evan Parker gives it one final accent of nocturnal glow. “A Certain Slant of Light” is equally accessible. The pensive four-stanza poem is given a suitably poignant backdrop that takes on an almost cinematic quality.
Sylvian combines all these elements for the title track (which comes way too early in the track listing). Striking lyrics about a woman found dead (“The weight of her body impresses the ground / softened by rainfall, soaked right through / the lightening sky and the darkening blue”) are trapped by a swarm of Fujikura’s unrecognizable clarinets. Intertwined samples of a live concert by Bang and Honoré provide an unpredictable percussive element. The final sound, anchored by Sylvian’s melancholy vocals, is tense, seductive and disturbing. Few musicians could create such a balance, nonetheless for two equally enticing albums.
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