The last few years have been turbulent for David Sylvian who has parted ways with his longstanding record company Virgin and more recently split up from his wife, former Prince prot�g� Ingrid Chavez.
His last solo album, 2003s experimental, angst-ridden Blemish was also hard-going for his fans, though still illuminated with beauties such as A Fire In The Forest and Late Night Shopping. It also extended a 15 year run of releases that have included some great moments without being wholly satisfying projects, ranging from the brief Japan reformation, Rain Tree Crow and his work with Robert Fripp, The First Day, through to his own solo album, Dead Bees On A Cake.
The arrival of this collaboration – hence the ‘band’ name – with his brother Steve Jansen and electronic composer Burnt Friedman is therefore a relief, as it’s easily his finest and most cohesive album since 1987′s Secrets Of The Beehive. Better still Snow Borne Sorrow is a very personal and genuinely moving collection of songs, as Sylvian finally strips away the layers of art and artifice to give a glimpse of the man inside. Although this process was kick-started by the ugly blood-letting of Blemish, this time around he not only confesses all but connects and reaches out.
There is a purity at work here – rather like a landscape of snow – as Sylvian creates a world where there’s no place for either Roxy-esque glamour fantasies or, at the other end of the spectrum, the kind of hypnotic, spiritual mantras which were increasingly altering the flow of his music. It’s often a disturbing place with the likes of Wonderful World and The Banality Of Evil sarcastically depicted by a newly sharpened writer, jolted by trauma out of self-absorption.
Not only that but Wonderful World in particular is right up there with his best work, as the track moves from the singer’s distinctive croon to passages sung by one of the albums many guests, Stina Nordenstam. Dark, tensely-evocative strings and some atmospheric piano courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto complete the cinematic sense of scale.
The animated, guitar-driven Darkest Birds is another highlight and 25 years ago would have made a Top 10 single, though one suspects those days have gone for good. Even when Sylvian becomes reflective and the compositions melt into ambience and lengthen (in fact Snow Borne Sorrow is an hour long despite containing only nine tracks) as on A History Of Holes, The Librarian and the excellent title-song, there’s a depth of feeling that makes his most famous ballad, Ghosts seem like a young man’s self-pity in comparison.
As one would expect, the musical arrangements and contributions from the likes of Ryuichi Sakamato and trumpeter Arve Henriksen give the album the kind of exquisite detailing that even Steely Dan would fine acceptable, but that’s not the point. Refreshingly free of lengthy jazz noodlings and unlistenable avant garde improvisations, Snow Borne Sorrow is a very beautiful and disciplined record that lies somewhere between Leonard Cohen’s The Future and the shimmering realism of The Blue Nile and Talk Talk.