Although David Sylvian is not exactly an under-compiled artist, this almost comprehensive retrospective still provides welcome respite from 2012’s familiar first quarter of PR buzz and endless awards ceremonies. It also offers a timely reminder that British music has long managed to produce brilliant, artful eccentrics, often against all odds. Sylvian belongs in a select group alongside artists such as Mark Hollis and Scott Walker (the latter somewhat adopted, but we should be delighted to claim him) in having made an extraordinary journey from pop star to uncompromising individual.
Like those other two masters, Sylvian’s development was hardly a major volte-face but rather more of a gradual, patient evolution born from restless experimentation. Sylvian remains to this day the kind of artist for whom there is always something more to learn, as interested in process and method as he is in the results. The seeds for this transition were certainly planted whilst Sylvian reluctantly enjoyed his status as ‘the most beautiful man in music’ whilst fronting Japan. Japan were a pop band, but they were a remarkably artful one, their music often taking unexpected twists and turns and always luxuriating in the possibilities of sound and texture. Ghosts, a remix of which kicks off proceedings here, may well be the strangest single ever to grace the UK Top 5. Its carefully crafted minimalism and stark vocal still sound surprising now.
After Japan disbanded, Sylvian’s first work seemed to refine their unique brand of angular, mutated funk. Rhythm remained a primary component in his collaborations with Ryuichi Sakomoto on the Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music single (both sides of which are included here) and his debut solo album included Pulling Punches and Red Guitar, two tracks elegant, sleek and lurching in equal measure. They could have sat comfortably on Japan’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids album.
A Victim Of Stars makes clear the extent to which Sylvian has thrived on collaboration. There is one track (Blackwater, with its keening slide guitar and fascinating brushed drums) from 1990’s Rain Tree Crow project, essentially a Japan reunion in all but name. There’s also a welcome selection from his somewhat underrated 1993 collaboration with Robert Fripp. Then there’s the legions of guest performers, many drawn from the realms of jazz or progressive rock. In addition to the aforementioned Fripp, in his initial run of solo projects, Sylvian worked with some of the very finest improvising musicians – not least guitarist Bill Frisell, legendary trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, Mark Isham and David Torn. Sylvian must, of course, had quite enticing musical qualities of his own to gather such an extraordinary roll call. Many must have been drawn by his focus on sound, dynamics, texture and interaction, qualities too often ignored by musicians working in mainstream spaces.
This compilation may primarily be valuable for illustrating the full length and breadth of Sylvian’s musical progression. It is the first compilation to draw together his Virgin work with his more recent improvisation projects (2009’s bleak and haunting Manafon found him working with legends such as Evan Parker, Eddie Prevost and Keith Rowe). The two discs incorporate moments of swooning beauty (Let The Happiness In), lush, sensual extended narratives dressed in deceptively conventional musical clothes (Orpheus, one of his most popular songs) and darker moments of inspired spontaneity (Small Metal Gods).
It’s arguable that, by inevitable omission, A Victim Of Stars might make the distance between the wiry funk of Pulling Punches and the near-formless songs from Blemish and Manafon seem greater that it in fact is. Constant qualities can be found by those willing to listen closely. Sylvian’s voice has always been a prominent feature – somehow both understated and expressive – and used more as an instrument than simply a vehicle for the song. Manafon took this notion to its logical conclusion, Sylvian imposing his own improvised delivery on to pre-recorded improvisations recorded with his collaborators. Also consistent is Sylvian’s preoccupation with texture, mood and deconstruction – his songs have rarely adhered rigidly to verse-chorus-verse conventions.
Still, with time constraints probably preventing the inclusion of any of Sylvian’s long form work with Holger Czukay and with the selections from 1986’s wonderful Gone To Earth entirely eschewing its instrumental half, it’s harder to reconcile some of the challenges of Sylvian’s mature period with the earlier song choices. Perhaps the welcome inclusion of some material from the outstanding Nine Horses project (with Sylvian again working with Steve Jansen), particularly the sophisticated but chilling Banality Of Evil, may help join some of the dots.
After everything, any compilation which includes the classic Forbidden Colours (Sylvian and Sakamoto’s instantly recognisable theme from Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence) alongside the brilliant, menacing The Only Daughter (from Blemish) is still a challenging but exciting prospect. The combination of Sylvian’s approach to vocal delivery with his interest in the sonic effects of specific instrumentation and production techniques mean that his music has always had emotional qualities without ever resorting to familiar emotional manipulation or cliche. In some glorious alternate universe, he is collecting Outstanding Contributions to British Music awards. In the real world, the honours will no doubt continue to elude him.