y now, the elements are exceedingly familiar: those languid atmospherics, the vaguely jazzy underpinnings, the technology so cutting edge it’s patent-worthy. And, of course, that voice, stalking the proceedings like some spectral European beatnik. Indeed, whatever the context—whether it’s the New Romantic synth pop of Japan, the proggy metal of his 90’s collaboration with Robert Fripp, or the misty electronics of laptop artist Christian Fennesz—the instrumental backing on a David Sylvian recording has always been just that: background—hopelessly subservient to his rich, smoky baritone.
Of course, some things never change. After recording 2002’s bleak Blemish deep in the New Hampshire woods in the midst of a divorce—in truth, a record much more “snow borne sorrow” than this—the singer returns leading an ensemble that, if anything, enhances the sense that it’s Sylvian’s show. And why not, really, since Nine Horses seems less a trio than two duos featuring Sylvian as common denominator; accordingly, with brother and fellow graduate of Japan, Steve Jansen, providing glitchy electronics for one and German multi-instrumentalist Burnt Friedman on the other, it falls to the singer to put his personal stamp on the proceedings.
And does he ever—from the gently swinging opener of “Wonderful World,” Sylvian’s prodigious vocal cords are in fine form, vaguely alluding to 9/11 as he sings about broken dreams, collapsing buildings, and people “trapped in their lives.” But never one to rest on his laurels (1999’s flat Dead Bees on a Cake being perhaps the sole exception), the song also features a cameo from Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam, one of two Scandinavian collaborators on Snow Borne Sorrow (the other being Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen of Supersilent). Sounding like a fusion of Rickie Lee Jones and Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s Popeye (a description so deliciously apt I wish I’d thought of it), Nordenstam’s tipsy soprano renders the noir-ish “Wonderful World” one of the album’s highlights. “Atom and Cell” is another, with Henriksen’s whining horn, piano from longtime collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a mellowed out gospel vocal ensemble on the chorus. Almost as good is the shuffling closer and best of the Friedman collaborations, “The Librarian,” which appeared in an earlier form last year on a release featuring Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit.
But for all of the record’s avant garde woodwind flourishes and Rune Grammofon-ish touches of electronics, there’s a certain by-the-numbers, even slick, quality to many of the tracks on Snow Borne Sorrow; indeed, the chief pleasures of several songs, including the vaguely electro “Serotonin” and harshly digital title track, are derived less from their melodies or subtext than the (admittedly masterful) arrangements. Where Blemish gave resonance to the desperate subject matter by exposing Sylvian’s voice in angular, stark settings that featured the likes of Fennesz and improv guitar legend Derek Bailey, the cast here proves in many respects too sympathetic to Sylvian’s pop ECM aesthetic. And unlike the earlier record, the rewards of which took several listens to unearth, the results here, while attractive and lush, fail to generate much in the way of tension.
None of which is to say Snow Borne Sorrow is an unrewarding listen. If anything, it proves once again that Sylvian remains uniquely capable of absorbing the avant garde into pop music with integrity and sophistication—if not always innovation. But given the alternative—Great American Songbooks, reunion tours, and the like—it’s certainly forgivable.
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