After the first, definitely the second, and most of the third through seventh listens it becomes increasingly obvious that sometime Japan lynchpin David Sylvian is not terribly happy. On Manafon Sylvian almost talks as much as sings about it over 50 testingly honest (honestly testing?) minutes. The sparing, affective strings-and-noise instrumental backing serves to highlight the emotion in the lyrics rather than carry any melody, all of which is built into his affected and oddly loungecore semi-spoken word vocal.
At its best – on Small Metal Gods, The Greatest Living Englishman and Manafon’s title track – Sylvian shares his introspective insights, delicately wrapped over a simple, balanced and carefully assembled soundscape. At its worst (much of the rest of it, unfortunately), it’s hard to avoid imagining a middle aged divorcee with a hangover crooning in the corner of a pub whilst a Fast Show parody of a DaDa cinema short gets more attention on the telly in the next room.
Whilst toes may struggle to tap, his arresting journeyman voice stands up well and holds attention over the full length of each emotionally strained line. But the lyrics have a habit of oscillating uncomfortably between an out-of-place man spilling his guts and a wannabe intellectual A-level poet, possibly because they were written more or less on the fly as the musicians laid down the bed.
The counterpoint between his smooth musings and the poignantly economical backing is quite striking, and respect should be paid to an ambitious production that includes some of the globe’s most noted improvisational artists. Amongst them are the pianist John Tilbury, Evan Parker and Keith Rowe, Christian Fennesz and some of his collaborators from the Viennese Polwechsel, and Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide in Tokyo.
Most of the sessions were recorded in very few takes and received little post-production; perhaps they would work more effectively in a live setting, albeit one with comfortable chairs, strong alcohol and clearly marked exits. It’s not that this is an intrinsically depressing album, but it is short on much to connect Sylvian’s world with that of anyone unfamiliar with his ways.
Fans of David Sylvian will doubtless appreciate the elegant compositions and Sylvian’s self-indulgent but soulful insights, but there is little to entertain the casual (or formal, or even bare ass naked) listener who may be better off back cataloguing Tom Waits and Nick Drake and realizing that they are not the same thing.