Despair, romance, and ancient Greek myth. Sylvian’s Orpheus still haunts 30 years on
David Sylvian has always remained something of an enigma. As lead singer of Japan, whose electronic sounds and peroxide-pop tendencies pre-empted the new-romantic movement by at least a couple of years (a long time in the late ‘70’s), Sylvian’s unique and unassuming vision would ultimately pave the way for so many other bands who would come to flourish throughout the more commercially plastic post-punk era. In other words, without Japan, groups like Duran Duran might never have existed (not such a bad notion for some of you I’m sure).
After issuing a series of artistically successful solo albums (one of which, Brilliant Trees, is well worth investigating), in 1987 he recorded what was perhaps his most mysterious and haunted to date. Secrets of the Beehive is not an easy album to digest, at least not on first listen, whose contents are what I can only describe as music which floats on a sea of its own obscurity. A soundtrack to depression if you like, possessed of a quality as maudlin as it is strangely hopeful, with songs that juxtapose themselves as poignant snapshots of despair and inner experience. But don’t worry; David is always there to guide you through the gloom with his soothing voice. For this is one journey of existential lament you’ll be glad to have discovered.
With “September” the door opens, and into Sylvian’s world we enter. Here we find David alone, on piano, while Sakamoto’s string arrangements add abstract atmosphere toward the end of what is a brief and melancholic introduction.
“The Boy with the Gun” is anchored by Danny Thompson’s double bass, while the rest of the band swirls underneath Sylvian’s delicate vocals. “Maria” is almost meditative in a slightly Eno sort of way, where all the instruments seem to blend into one as some soft kaleidoscope of sounds. Like a puzzle one can never solve.
Next is “Orpheus”, and as anyone familiar with their Greek myth would know, Apollo presented to Orpheus his lyre so that he may make music to tame even the wildest of beasts. And not only that but the trees and rocks too! No small feat. But here David has cleverly adapted the original mystic narrative and made it into his own. In the opening verses he sings “I harbour all the same worries as most/The temptations to leave or give up the ghost”. Is the song written from Eurydice’s perspective, waiting for Orpheus to rescue her from the underworld? All we are left to know is that “Still the voices have stories to tell/Of the power struggles in heaven and hell”.
“The Devil’s Own” reveals a psyche lurking in the shadows, somewhere behind a treated piano, synth, and woodwind arrangement. Delightfully depressive. While “When Poets Dreamed of Angels” is simply elegant. A Spanish flavoured number where Phil Palmer contributes some fine Flamenco guitar, complete with castanets, and more of those world weary observations from Sylvian which we’ve come to know and love.
“Mother and Child” is an excursion into Jazz/Avante-guard territory, where Sakamoto sprinkles more than a few unsettling notes around the double bass.
“Let the Happiness In” was the first single. Say what you will about the 80’s, I can’t think of any other decade where a song like this would have had a hope in hell of getting airplay. The instruments have a despondent yet therapeutic quality to them, and when the trumpet comes in, you can at once visualise a ray of sunlight peeping in through all those dark and dispiritive clouds which Sylvian so eloquently paints through the bleak landscape of his imagination.
The remastered version of the album ends with “Promise (The Cult of Eurydice)”, a track not on the original LP, and no doubt a conscious effort on Sylvian’s part to deliver an ending more appropriate to the theme. However it’s not even a song, more analogous to an appearance of stars at twilight.
Listening to Secrets of the Beehive now, it’s hard to believe that it was released in the same year which brought us Rick Astley and Guns N’ Roses. Most music we can place our finger on as far as in which period it was recorded. For this album no such definition applies. It belongs in the clouds, and the forests. To the Parthenon via Miles Davis to Nick Drake then back again. For every broken heart, there is an Orpheus in us all.