It takes work to hear anxiety in David Sylvian's voice. The impressive baritone from his 1980s Japan and solo albums has matured and strengthened over the years, and it carries the drama in his lyrics with ever more subtlety. For 2003's Blemish-- arguably the strongest, but not the easiest record in his catalog-- Sylvian spent a short six weeks writing and recording material about the dissolution of his marriage, and his voice stands against tense, cold backdrops. The turmoil doesn't shake his performance, which is loud and unyielding, but the hurt comes through in the mix: upfront and naked, he sounds completely alone.
Against that bombshell, Snow Borne Sorrow is a far easier listen, and yet it explores some common themes, and serves as a companion to that other work. Both albums reflect the state of the war-torn world, and the crisis in his personal life-- discussed explicitly in his latest record's title track-- and on both albums, his voice sounds strong, clear, and emotionally spent. But where Blemish reacts to the moment, Snow Borne Sorrow sounds like a series of morning-after ruminations. The record combines songs that Sylvian wrote up to five years ago with his brother and long-time collaborator, drummer Steve Jansen, with newer material that he developed with electronica artist Burnt Friedman. (Sylvian released this under the band name Nine Horses probably to share the credit, but at the end of the day it's his show.) But in spite of its long history, Snow Borne Sorrow is consistent, cohesive, and polished to a shine.
The trip-hoppy opener "Wonderful World", and a new, urgent mix of his and Friedman's enigmatic "The Librarian", bookend a record of mid-tempo, contemporary pop songs. Smooth backup singers join Sylvian on several cuts, including the exquisite "Atom and Cell"; but Stina Nordenstem also makes a striking cameo, creeping into "Wonderful World" like a high-pitched ghost and slipping cracks and uncertainty into Sylvian's faade. Ryuichi Sakamoto plays piano with the delicacy of a heavy man walking on ice, and Arve Henriksen, best known as a member of Supersilent, follows Jon Hassell, Kenny Wheeler, and Mark Isham as the latest great trumpeter to work with Sylvian. With a wavering, airy tone that's tastefully exotic in the background, yet precise and determined when he solos, Henriksen fits right in with the ambience and the emotional tenor of the record; you couldn't ask for a better sideman for such a slow, sad album.
Sylvian's last "pop" record, 1999's Dead Bees on a Cake, was happier and more eclectic, but it was also far more disjointed; his next solo album-- already in progress, though who knows when he'll finish it-- will continue in Blemish's footsteps, stripping away the songforms and other conventions and employing artists like Fennesz and AMM's Keith Rowe. Snow Borne Sorrow would seem to mark a clean end to one phase of his work, while Blemish introduces the next: it'll be more experimental, and maybe more difficult, but if that indomitable voice has made it this far, you know it'll just be back stronger the next time.
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