David Sylvian's enjoyed a career common to art-rock-leaning, former English pop stars who've doggedly chased their personal obsessions in lieu of giving their old fanbase what they want, again and again. He's not quite as intractable as, say, old peer Mark Hollis (Talk Talk). For one thing, Sylvian's still releasing records. But from the time Japan ditched the crowd-pleasing glam sheen onward, Sylvian's music has forced his cult to reexamine their ongoing relationship with the master's music every few years.
That's not to say each of Sylvian's reinventions has been total, at least on an album-to-album basis. Manafon is of a piece with the music Sylvian has released in the 21st century, especially 2003's small masterpiece, Blemish. Like that quiet, achingly personal record, Manafon reaffirms Sylvian's aughts-forged connections with the modern avant-garde, be it jazz, electro-acoustic improvisation, post-glitch electronica, modern composition, or the artists who manage to occupy all four worlds while claiming none of them.
A small army of The Wire-friendly types contribute-- sax colossus Evan Parker; Japanese "onkyo" ascetics Sachiko M. and Toshimaru Nakamura; guitar re-inventors on the level (and varying praxis) of Keith Rowe, Christian Fennesz, and members of Polwechsel; and many more. So this may be overstating the obvious, but pop music it ain't. Even the unearthly minimalism of Japan's "Ghosts" or Blemish's "Late Night Shopping" are more immediate than anything on Manafon.
If the results aren't as bracingly sour as Sylvian's cross-purpose collaborations with Derek Bailey, they also lack the warmth he gleaned from Fennesz's heat-prickly electronics. His collaborators' small, brittle, seemingly disconnected instrumental gestures slip around the unctuousness of Sylvian's infamously mannered high-romantic vocals. Sylvian's remains a voice whose only peer for unrestrained melodrama is Antony Hegarty, and whose old-school voluptuousness makes Antony's whinnying jazz-isms seem positively astringent. Sylvian's voice doesn't lend itself to the kind of modern scat one associates with "free" singing, nor does he even try.
But what drama this musical/vocal combination, oil and water on paper, creates on disc. Sylvian often sounds as if he's reading verse rather than singing songs. Choruses are scant, or so languidly paced (as on "The Greatest Living Englishman") that they barely register as such. He lets you know just how carefully he's wrought his words, each line left to vibrate with portent before he'll move onto onto the next. Never have the words "don't know his right foot from his left" seemed so flush with private meaning.
At its best, it's shiver-inducing, a sort of inverse of Joanna Newsom's ecstatic prolixity, though with the same deliberate pacing that can alienate listeners used to songs that progress from verse to verse at the usual clip. Sylvian can rival Michael Gira when it comes to taking his own sweet time getting through a lyric. And at least Swans had brutal, repetitive rhythms to help guide listeners along. Sylvian makes no such concessions to rock tradition, however perverted. And it's the music that makes Manafon a marvel, a mixture of free-improvisation's moment-to-moment sonic epiphanies with Sylvian's molasses-slow kinda-sorta torch songs.
Mark Hollis' 1998 solo album is probably the closest comparison to the backing tracks of Manafon. On that underheard record, Hollis asked why couldn't a singer-songwriter album move to the staggered (and staggering) quietude of Morton Feldman's china-fragile chamber music. Sylvian takes it much further out, though. For one thing, while he knows restraint when necessary, you could never describe Sylvian's performance as "hushed," whereas Hollis often seemed to evaporate from his own compositions.
Sylvian is front-and-center on every song, which is good because he provides the only rhythmic and melodic stability, as the instrumentals dart and scratch and feedback around him, whether it's the scouring burst of formless guitar noise that opens miniature "125 Spheres", the random notes pricking the drone of "Snow White in Appalachia", or the splinters of Bernard Herrmann-meets-AMM piano on "Random Acts of Senseless Violence". Nothing makes "sense" by usual capital-s Songwriting standards; it's music with the rhythm and textural illogic of precipitation. And no other singer is making music this bravely untethered to tradition. Though you know he'll some day move on, you want Sylvian to explore this eerie, expectation-subverting world forever.
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