The pick-up group of elite improvisers might be new but David Sylvian’s song remains the same, says IAN PENMAN.
Manafon is the first time David Sylvian has seriously disappointed me in (gosh) 30 years – although, if it’s any consolation, it’s hardly due to any lack of ambition on his part. The portents feel great. If you thought 2003’s Blemish went out on a limb you ain’t heard nothing yet! Where the gorgeous. thorny, nonpareil Blemish had intermittent spiky/gooey interjections from Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz, here Sylvian’s cherry-pick pick-up group includes players from AMM (Rowe, Tilbury) and Polwechsel (Dafeldecker, Moser, Stangl) and Evan Parker and Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M and more.
Sylvian’s such a convert to Improv there’s even a film for Manafon entitled Amplified Gesture, included on a special box set edition of the album, in which everyone but Sylvian talks about how they came to it and what it means and why they love it and what its challenges are. The bad news is, the back-seat absence of David from the film is unfortunately balanced out by his looming centre-stage presence on the CD. This is music that sounds as if it were made in two very discrete spaces, one for David, and one for everyone else. Which kinda begs the question: why bother with group improvisation as a new way to go for your Song, if you’re going to end up saying “Include me out!”, record your songs separately, and then just slap them over everyone else’s subtle breath-trace work?
The idea sounds great – a meeting of song and free texture – until you start to look deeper. If you’ve been singing a certain way for 35 years, how easy is it going to be to just jettison that work in a different way? (Answer: he doesn’t even try). And is David Sylvian really the man for this particular go-with-your-messy –instincts job? (Answer: not on this evidence). Like any kind of art practice you have to learn patience, sensitivity to temperature, moment, momentum and (here) the psychology of the people you play with. Sylvian appears to have plumped for Option B – taking the work of these elite players and recording his usual vocals over the top, which could make you feel very cynical about the whole enterprise, and reignite accusations Sylvian’s faced in the past (unfairly, I’d say) about a certain boutique pick’n’mix attitude on his part towards sidemen: it’s not like David Tibet say, where it says: “On this album Current 93 are:… “ and then a democratic list. This is A Work By David Sylvian.
After listening the heck out of Manafon for three weeks, all I retain of its nine tracks, its dream list of free music luminaries, is exactly this: one dark arc moment of Evan Parker’s sax for ten to 15 seconds, and… and a lot of David Sylvian. His voice is mixed way up, but never for a second sounds – well, mixed up. It’s never for a moment part of the texture of the other player’s improvisations. So, having gone to the trouble of assembling all this free talent – to help evade old forms and investigate new vocabularies for your Song – why then alter your voice not a jot? The songs index various extreme moods (terror on the rather clunky “Random Acts Of Senseless Violence”, exile and exiled belief on “Small Metal Gods”, “The Greatest Living Englishman” and the title track: elsewhere, death and drugs and isolation), but the timbre and intonation of his voice just don’t change one whit from song to song.
Blemish, too, was experimental – but it was also human, warm. Manafon by comparison feels inert, half-realised: his vocals feel oddly clinical, detached, set in (s)tone. Singing, he never sounds like he was in the same timezone or mindset as anyone/everyone else: consequently no Group Mind ever catches fire here. Why get the best Improv players in the world – people who on average need a good 15 minutes to get going, as it were – and then but snip them off at two or five or ten minutes? There is one instrumental track here (“Department Of Dead Letters”), but given that it is only 2’26” – well, you see the problem. Things are barely allowed to get going before it snips shut.
All told, it has the opposite effect to what I assume Sylvian foresaw. Which is to say on most of the tracks here, you find yourself just longing for his voice not to come in again – you just want to hear how the hired help were that day, what the temperature was in the room , what jokes were cracked, whose head wasn’t on straight, who could hear the emerging light. (Or: why not just buy the new Polwechsel/Tilbury CD?) It just feels like Sylvian was the wrong man for this particular job: he can’t let go, fall into the flux, the mess, the particulate spill, the unfocused group sunrise and exploration, the same dirty water as everyone else, sweats mingling, unfamiliar salts on the tongue ….
And maybe he knows it – as there’s a line here that could serve as canny auto-critique: “And you balance things/Like you wouldn’t believe/When you should just/Let things be” Or, to quote a favourite line from Welsh poet RS Thomas (subject of the title track): “The embryo music died in his throat.” Replace that “in” with “by” and you’ve got the whole story right there.
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