Post-Japan, David Sylvian has produced a consistently evolving and increasingly intense series of solo albums, in particular over the last decade. Culminating in 2009’s profound, stark and troubling Manafon, these intimate releases have run parallel to Sylvian’s simultaneous collaborative work, with a wide and eclectic range of musicians and artists.
Sleepwalkers is compilation of some of the most significant of these collaborations from the ’00s. It features reworkings of previously released material (some radically changed, some merely tweaked), outtakes from earlier albums, and one brand new work. It also represents, in Sylvian’s own words, the “more playful side” of his body of work.
So, for those whose experiences of his music to date have come from the two previous albums – Blemish and Manafon – there is a lightness of touch and optimism of mood found here that will seem revelatory. Money For All and Ballad Of A Deadman, the latter featuring Joan Wasser and Sylvian’s brother Steve Jansen, are both accessible, tuneful and animated. World Citizen – I Won’t Be Disappointed, meanwhile, sings of “break[ing] the indifference”, while Sylvian even claims to be “optimistically inclined” in the otherwise fairly bleak break-up song The Day The Earth Stole Heaven.
There is also a fresh earthiness to the work of this artist who has often in the past seemed not quite “of this world”. A couple of tracks are peppered with some choice profanities: opener Sleepwalkers (“you fucking sleepwalkers”) and Angels, where the “fuck you” is spoken, almost exhaled with a quiet menace. In Thermal he has produced a sensual, sexual and intimate rumination on his lover’s body that is both upfront and erotic.
Of course, all is not sweetness and light, even on this playful side-piece. Anger runs through tracks like Sleepwalkers and Angels, while Playground Matters has a nostalgic and sorrowful tone, and Exit/Delete tells a stark and tragic tale of what appears to be “Caroline”‘s (drug-induced?) death, poignantly, heartbreakingly asking: “How can it be as quiet as this / This close to the edge?” Several songs also seem to allude to relationship break-ups or breakdown – The Day The Earth Stole Heaven, Exit/Delete and Wonderful World.
This last, created with Nine Horses, is one of the standout album tracks. It’s a gloriously tuneful and mellifluous take on pessimism, the accompanying female vocals somehow managing to be simultaneously emotionless yet expressive. Also marvellous are the collaboration with long-time ally Ryuichi Sakamoto, World Citizen, and the mellow, brass-inflected The Day The Earth Stole Heaven. Trauma, closing the album, is its most atmospheric track, an outtake from album-before-last Blemish that features a throbbing, resonating, pulsing backing punctuated by harsh noises such as spiralling wails, deep drones and near-shrieks.
Perhaps the most “difficult” track on the album, in terms of the challenge it presents to the casual listener, is the previously unreleased Five Lines – the first product of the current working partnership between Sylvian and Japanese classical composer Dai Fujikura. This is one of those tracks that seems crammed so full of ideas that it struggles to hang together thematically, lyrically or musically, so tightly has it been packed.
Positioning itself in a niche somewhere between the avant-garde and the more esoteric brand of pop music, this album would serve as a great “way in” to the work of Sylvian and, indeed, his musical partners. Thoughtful, considered, sombre yet still capable of surprising, it is surely set to be recognised as one of 2010’s more cerebral listening pleasures.