Despondent, depressing, timeless.
If there was one artist more mercurial than David Bowie it was David Sylvian, whose 1984 solo debut Brilliant Trees, proved that one didn’t have to be commercial in order to be popular. And while Bowie was busy crooning about his “China Girl”, Sylvian was hiding in his backwaters, establishing new creative grounds for a decade which was, at least culturally speaking, pretty vapid.
Opener “Pulling Punches” does sound a little dated, production wise. What with its funky, jerky bass, and plastic keyboards. The whole thing is basically a bit of a throwback to his Japan days, and while it still works, it nevertheless has ‘80’s written all over it, and is something of a misleading introduction.
“The Ink In the Well” is so good it already feels like a well worn shoe on first listen, whose elements are so familiar and yet so surprising. The song itself is a sensual journey concerned with “The blood of the poet/The ink in the well.” Danny Thompson’s double bass provides an anchor over which the rest of the musicians can move and hover. Richard Barbieri’s flugelhorn is unique for the time, and the whole performance is indeed a thing of beauty.
Likewise next track “Nostalgia”, which sees Sylvian “Cutting branches from the trees… To exorcise the ghosts inside of me”. It’s an exquisite piece, full of despondent reflection. At the core is David’s voice, intimate and mournful, ambient in its pathos.
“Red Guitar” is what I can only describe as pop-jazz, a brilliant blend of disparate elements both old and new. However who’s to say that ‘50s jazz can’t still be relevant? Not David. For to him all music is applicable regardless of the era in which it was made. In other words, everything is up for grabs. The track begins in an upbeat way, but soon things get a little interesting once the piano synthesizer briefly comes in, while the rest of the band bounce along in convivial fashion. Sylvian sings about his red guitar as being the devil, all possessive, while forcing him to continue playing. It reminds me of The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Andersen, the famous fairy tale about a woman who cannot keep from dancing whenever she is wearing them, as if Mephistopheles himself were in control. At what point does talent become a curse? It can be like that sometimes.
“Weather Wall” is like submerging oneself in a bath of ambience, enhanced by Miles Davis disciple and fourth-world founder Jon Hassell, whose treated trumpet adds wash and abstract colour, snaking round Sylvian’s ever pondering croon.
“Backwaters” begins as another spacious piece, until the slithery bass comes in, and the drums on the off-beat, where David sings about “hiding in backwaters… Rushing to bite the hand which feeds me… this way or that”. Some edgy piano is thrown into the synthetic stew, along with what resembles a muted trumpet. The whole thing is a strange and melancholy concoction, that I have no words to describe it any further. Like listening to a centipede march its way rhythmically toward only it knows where.
What is the final and also title track is Sylvian’s last hope for redemption, who sings like a Sinatra on anti-depressants. At about the five minute mark we move into avant-garde territory, very strange indeed.
There can be no doubting that Sylvian was ahead of the pack in terms of style and creativity. Whose own level of artistic enquiry was way beyond what the majority of most pop musicians were striving for (with the exception of perhaps Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark). There can also be little question as to Sylvian’s taste in collaborators, with the likes of Holger Czukay (Krautrock), Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the aforementioned Jon Hassell, all making important and vital contributions to David’s bleak and multifarious vision. Brilliant Trees would ensure that Sylvian was more than just your average self-obsessed omphaloskeptic pop singer. A man who had one hand touching Heaven, while his foot remained in Hades.