David Sylvian rocks, in the truest sense. He rocks like very quiet played very loud. He rocks like snowfall putting out the sun. He rocks because he has the audacity (if no choice), to be himself, in the here and now. The here and now of Pop Idol and Big Brother.
He rocks in the face of his fans and their expectations. In the face of the music “industry” and nostalgia tours. He is the last romantic punk, with a singing voice like a storm trapped inside a glass skull. To be able to witness one of my all time favourite artists in progress, as it were (is this how exciting it was to see Miles Davis go funk, Dylan electric?)- is an increasingly rare privilege. Who are Sylvian’s peers now?
The utter lack of compromise on his part will occasionally test even his most ardent fans and how little we are tested these days. I found the shows on his last outing, the largely retrospective Everything and Nothing tour in 2001, a tad tired. Tonight was a raw, brave, awkward, difficult, beautiful, beguiling, uncomfortable and moving experience. To call it just a gig would be daft.
He starts with the greater part of the current album; Blemish. Anyone not aware of this work, here for some old Japan songs – I guess that’s their feet squirming, their knuckles cracking.
Blemish is an almost atonal, drone like series of pieces rather than songs merging into one, after another… a large monochrome canvas, speckled here and there – no drums, no live guitar. Keyboard washes and samples, glued together by that voice: the sound of velvet tearing in sloooow motion; the sound of a dry wood fire starting up.
And then there is a Japan song. And get this – in a week when Sylvian sees the greater part of his back catalogue lavishly re- mastered, re-packaged, re- released and re-reviewed, he chooses to do a oldie not included on any of these albums. Now that’s what I call… perverse. The song is The Other Side Of Life from the Quiet Life album and it’s simple and moving traditional song structure is played out on a battered Nylon-stringed acoustic guitar.
This song, with its recognisably traditional verse and chorus, not to mention the emotional and nostalgic echoes, seems like a reward after the heaviness of the first act. It ends, predictably, with the biggest applause so far.
What follows is a kind of balance between this song and the first six. We get re-arranged pieces from his 3rd seminal solo album; Secrets Of The Beehive… a song from Dead Bees On A Cake fused with something from the Rain Tree Crow album. The pace is unrelenting – the tempo almost unchanging, the dynamics subtle and hair trigger delicate. I love it; it’s great.
I had the feeling of having attended a film or a theatre show. The wonderful visuals, courtesy of an asexual-looking and petit Japanese dude, must go some way toward this. Animation, treated film (kids running through fields, mother and child…Sylvian’s home movies?) were totally complementary and never distracted from the music. Were they being manipulated, live? This was the only time I felt such a medium has worked.
To hear someone as private as Sylvian be so public, as with the lyrics “She took the children and the chequebook”; “I tried to please her… she stole my visa.” Was this about his marriage breaking up? Whatever, the fact that this was all going on in the heart of Manchester on a Wednesday night and at a decent sized and decently filled venue seems almost like a paradox.
The sound was not as good as expected for such a small group (just Sylvian and his bro: the drumless Steve Jansen on an assortment of keyboards and octopads). His diction and enunciation were lacking in comparison to the records and previous shows.
He looked great. Who else can get away with a turtle neck? Never mind tucking it into jeans. But he did, looking like a cross between a New York era John Lennon and a German lecturer. (For the sake of balance, my girlfriend thought he looked like a cross between a hamster and someone’s mum).
To witness this man so awake and unflinching (In contrast to the audience), so painfully here, seductive despite himself – the truest seduction – it’s as empowering and gratifying a musical experience as I’ve had.