Since 2009’s disquieting, troubled and intimate Manafon, it feels like David Sylvian has been slipping further into the background with each new piece of work. Released on his own SamadhiSound label, There’s A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight is another distinctly retreating step from the artist that once so vividly fronted Japan, that most interestingly skewed of ‘80s synthpop bands.
Less an album, or a musical release, than a musical framing for another artist’s words, There’s A Light… is one a continuous 64 minute performance which combines American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright’s words with subtle improvisations from Sylvian, his frequent co-collaborator Christian Fennesz and pianist John Tilbury. And really, this is Wright’s album more than it is Sylvian’s.
Recorded when the poet was undergoing treatment for seemingly terminal lung cancer (which he has nevertheless thus far continued to survive), Wright’s deep tones (coincidentally of a very similar pitch to Sylvian’s own voice) relate his mordant, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes shocking, often beautiful words, while the music ebbs and flows behind, much like the poet’s waxing and waning energies and life force.
Short tales, related conversationally but expressively, are followed by flutters of percussion, Tilbury’s piano notes falling like rain drops, while Wright tells, with exaggerated and deliberate understatement, of a homeless poet – “going through one of his brief stretches of addresslessness”, sick from opiate withdrawal and limping and staggering around a local park. “Things,” he dryly observes, “do not seem to be heading in a particularly auspicious direction.”
Or later, as Wright looks around his own sitting room, suddenly “vividly aware of what this room is going to look like when I am no longer alive”, the wonderfully underplayed music – understanding that with words this honest and stark no added (melo)drama is necessary – just gives a gentle echo and reverberation to those last six words, like an underlining, before a few warm brass tones appear, mixing in with the piano.
Elsewhere, the genuinely dark and troubling atmosphere of the poetry is subtly enhanced by the accompaniment. Static crackles intermittently, like sharp shards of pain. Some buzzing half-heard vocalisations crawl to the surface above the other sounds, an electronic voice stutters incoherently between Wright’s tales of finding light and love in the midst of the pain and fear of dying. What sounds like some kind of electronic alarm appears several times too, a dissonant reflection of the words being spoken.
And it is, unavoidably, the words that will draw the listener in. It is hard not to wait, sometimes impatiently, during the musical interludes for the next of Wright’s dispatches from the edges of life. He gives us stunningly beautiful descriptions of indoor light, such as “the stained-glass gold light of the end of September falls through the window, creating the impression of a staircase”. His clear-eyed acceptance of his (apparently) imminent mortality – “the blue sky one endless goodbye” – is not sanitised, though: he speaks of lacerations, blood billowing and blooming in a glass of water, maggots, blades, darkenings.
With a narrative this compelling, then, it is admirable and right that the music should take a back seat. This is a story that has no need for enhancement or even much in the way of reinforcement. In the same way as a beautiful painting can often be best displayed in the simplest of frames (and can be visually marred by an over-ornate one), so these words are perfectly showcased by the ego-free subtlety of Sylvian, Fennesz and Tilbury’s music. That this is an album that is likely to inspire people to subsequently seek out Wright’s published words is ultimately a sign of its success.