In some ways, David Sylvian is trapped in elegant amber, thanks to his stellar work fronting Japan, the U.K. act that evolved into a perfect art-dance bridge from mid-’70s David Bowie to Duran Duran. But the numerous impulses that have driven his muse for years, including his near-countless partnerships with performers ranging from Robert Fripp and Ryuichi Sakamoto to younger guns such as neo-electrogaze icon Fennesz—not to mention an often-intense private life Sylvian has guarded as carefully as his public image—has meant music that long resisted easy categorization. For any short, pop-oriented ballad of his, one could name a cryptic, lengthy composition in turn.
Manafon, his first full solo release since 2003’s Blemish, continues and almost summarizes this mix of styles, and arguably only one thing—his still-amazing voice, the cracks and strains of age adding a rough resonance without ruining it—connects him with even his recent past work. Spare, distressed arrangements, created from fragments of performances with a dizzying array of avant-garde collaborators (including Fennesz; Japanese multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide; and AMM saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Keith Rowe and pianist John Tilbury) emphasize space and silence rather than full-ensemble swing, his voice sitting forward in the mix with a sudden, naked intensity. When he first appears on the compelling opener “Small Metal Gods,” the effect is startling, even as he softly croons about intense emotional distress—perhaps even more of a hallmark of this album as it was of Blemish.
Song for song, Manafon’s flowing, crumbling beauty suggests striking points of comparison: Frank Sinatra’s most blasted, bleak songs; the flowing, uneasy depths of mid-’70s Miles Davis; the abstract serenity of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. But in the end, it is exactly what it always was—“just” another David Sylvian album, apart from anything but itself.
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