The Wire - David Sylvian "Blemish"

09.06.05

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The record begins in a room, so begins as a record. Not so many recordings begin in rooms at this moment in time; they are not records so much as accumulations of data. Distinctive fluctuations of a tube amp, vibrato set to medium speed and high intensity, introduce us into the room space and its atmosphere. No gates, filtering or intrusive EQ; just the box singing to itself. No picked notes; just percussive impact now and then. Another guitar, further distant in the room, erupts in arrested distortion, clipped. The amplifiers speak, or the body of the guitar; frame work rather than systemic framework. "I fall outside of her," David Sylvian sings.
The less 'real' silence (the room before and after music happens) surrounding recorded music, the more interesting real silence becomes. We call this atmosphere, the traces of life that we humans know very little about. Rooms and their resonance become magical. In the pauses between words, brief moments of difference tones, a low frequency bulge in the fabric. "Place the dummy on the roof, stitch him a tongue, give him proof." Every sound is close now, or very close: the voice, small blemishes of noise, amp vibrato, a drifting, wavering tone, tiny inferences of digital environments. Nothing is covered, removed, detached, enhanced. The voice is a naked man, seated in a room unfurnished except by tremulous, broken sound waves. The room is an ear.
Track two, "The Good Son", begins in another room. "... Vocals," says Derek Bailey, "Ok". Nowhere in the index of any book of theory, his chords and intervals move in wayward lines, water through marshland, a logic that just is. A musical timing and tuning, nevertheless. Feedback conversation between another guitar and amp hangs at the back of the room. Another kind of line, a shadow of the first. "You know he'll take you but not too far," sings David Sylvian. "Always first in line but second to none, the good son." The match is cracked, uncomfortable, a voice looking for the logic of water in a marsh, deep inside the listener's physical discomfort zone. Stripped of soundbite and spin, smooth oiled reassurances, the dialogue makes no concessions to empathy yet unearths a communication. Can we agree that our understanding is fragile and partial, stop pretending that we all want to sing the same song?
Track three, "The Only Daughter", words are chopped, snipped, lost, doubled: "She was, she was, a friend of mine, do us a favour, your one and only warning, please be gone by morning." A faint crackle, distant tones floating in a misted landscape, cuts in the fabric, harsh notes of the way we behave, the room has gone.
Track four, "The Heart Knows Better", pulses, a measured tread on soft ground; an open guitar chord shudders, vibrato turned to slow. The instrument is struck, not plucked. "And the mind's divisive, but the heart knows better." Is it ever possible to know what these songs mean? Private scenes in rooms, family life, soul adrift, ruptures and momentary connections, some faint scent of a breakthrough in personal understanding, how blurred feelings and the lapses of self interleave with clear perception and our sense of the real. "As frequent as street corners in Holborn are these chasms in the continuity of our ways," wrote Virginia Woolf in Jacob's Room.
Track five, "She Is Not", resumes the dialogue, a library scene of two philosophers from different schools in search of a common text. Bailey's guitar is spikes piercing surrounding air. "There she is. among her children, full of paintings." Only 43 seconds, this engagement, like a line written in a notebook.
Track six, "Late Night Shopping", is home video contrast, a Don DeLillo mood moving suddenly out of doors into artificial light, inside a car, nocturnal scenes from a mall, though no journey beyond the room takes place, just the thought of this experience proposed. A mundane chore becomes perversion; the world is inside out. A double-tracked voice, handclaps, a three note bassline, whereby the materials come closest to customary recording studio procedures. In the empty spaces, creaks and squeals that speak the language of trees in a high wind. "We can take the car, no one will be watching, we can lose ourselves, late night shopping."
Track seven, "How Little We Need To Be Happy", is a third study, how to build a song from the non-linear, non-cyclical form of Derek Bailey's improvisations. The voice is conversational, confident within itself yet deeply uncomfortable in this room of shifting floor and window walls. "They removed his voice and the silence overwhelmed him. How little it takes." Thanks to my own conversation with the artist Russel Mills (Sylvian's longtime collaborator), I have a quote, from Susan Sontag: "All art should make us nervous." Bailey is more fulsome, less dry here. Finding a shape for the words is so difficult, sniffing a harmonic implication out of blunted chords that shuffle in line, old men for a few steps, then shatter in mirror shards as if suddenly angels. No endings, no beginnings, no bridges, just river.
Track eight, "A fire In The Forest", is the last of this 43'45" record. A record of a point when caution is a paper boat to be thrown into the sea. Beginning with sustained tones, the improvisations of a church organist clouding the empty air just before a funeral unleashes its overwhelming emotions, this could be a song about death and bliss. "There is always sunshine above the grey sky, I will try to find it, yes I will try." This is a song of verses that become choruses. Two chords at a dreaming pace only but such a deep mood of human fallibility, transience, optimism and resolve. At the beginning of the second, or first verse, the sun bursts. A Christian Fennesz arrangement gently underlines the melancholy of ecstasy, sounds from his computer stretched into fine strings that nudge memories of childhood foods. Toffee and melted cheese. "Oh here comes my childhood, a penny for your secrets, it's standing in the window, not out here where it belongs." Too short, too sad, giving up a meaning only reluctantly, the song demands to be played over and over, moving beyond all expectations. Voice shedding a skin.

DAVID TOOP

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