A couple of background notes before I write anything about David Sylvian’s new album Manafon. First of all I would once upon a time have named David Sylvian amongst my favourite musicians. I was a big, big fan of Japan in their heyday, and his Secrets of the Beehive solo album, from way back in 1987 completely enchanted me at the age of seventeen. I followed him for a number of years after, initially very closely and later at more of a distance as my interest in pop music waned. Listening to Manafon now it sounds like little has changed in Sylvian’s approach to singing and songwriting, he still croons beautifully, with a very limited range. The songs seem more obviously personal, but the slow poetic delivery and foregrounded charcoal vocals could have been recorded twenty years ago. So I am no stranger to Sylvian’s music.
In my late teens through to mid twenties I was massively submerged in the more experimental end of indie / pop / rock music. My interests slowly moved away from songs and melody towards the more abstract, following a natural course out through odder and odder music until eventually I ceased to listen to songs as such and found the largely instrumental, often improvised music I mostly listen to today. En route I listened to massive amounts of music that took the rock/pop format and blended it with more abstract elements. For me personally, I felt leaving behind the simple and commercial vehicle of song structures was a progressive step towards more challenging music. So, I have always felt that projects by experimental musicians that attempt to blend pop music with improvised music to be something of a step backwards for me. I see no point in listening to that again, having tired repeatedly to do so and generally finding this kind of record frustrating, wondering where the music might have gone without the need to try and work vocals and melody into the equation.
I do not wonder this about Manafon though. This CD, which includes an instrumental line-up that reads like an A to Z catalogue of my CD shelves is Sylvian’s record. It was never going to go anywhere other than the direction it has taken. One of the things I feared for this album before it was released was that it may have been a set of great improvisations that Sylvian just sang over the top of. This isn’t the case. There are no great improvisations here as such. There is some great improvisatory playing that Sylvian has utilised and directed into place to form a nice background for his songs, but bar the one instrumental track this is definitely an album of songs. I am not completely sure how all of the recording sessions went, but the disc was recorded in Vienna, London and Tokyo at different times, with the likes of Chistoph Amann and Sebastian Lexer amongst the credited engineers. I think that Keith Rowe, Werner Dafeldecker, Christian Fennesz, Franz Hautzinger and Michael Moser were recorded in Vienna, Tetuzi Akiyama, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M and Toshi Nakamura in Tokyo, and finally John Tilbury, Marcio Mattos, Joel Ryan and Evan Parker in London.
In a recent Wire interview Sylvian said that on the whole he left the improvisations he recorded intact. This may be true from one point of view, but he has blended the recordings of the London musicians over and into most of the other pieces, with Tilbury’s playing appearing on six of the album’s eleven tracks. I am also a little uncertain about the nature of the original improvisations. it is not clear if Sylvian directed the musicians to play in any particular manner, but certainly all of the musicians here are not playing in as direct or forthcoming a manner they perhaps might on any other record. The sounds throughout are muted, moody, very much in tune with Sylvian’s usual sensibilities- Dafeldecker’s jazzy bass throughout sounds like it was lifted directly off of Songs from the Beehive. There are little incidental sounds here and there, and Tilbury in particular sounds like he is very much in the role of accompanist, filling in spaces in the songs, though as his playing has been cut up and spread throughout the album this could just be a result of Sylvian’s compositional skills.
Throughout the album there are many glimpses of the sheer brilliance of the assembled musicians here, often at the start and end of the tracks, where a little expression is evident before the vocals kick in and take centre stage. Tilbury, Mattos and Parker sound particularly fresh and vibrant, particularly on the brief two and a half minute The Department of Dead Letters, the one track without Sylvian’s vocals, which is perhaps predictably for me the stand-out piece on the album. What they lack though is any sense of emotional drive, any real passion in their playing, as if they (and all of the musicians) are well aware that this is not their album, that their sounds will be taken out of their original context, and that their role is essentially that of the classic session musician. There is of course nothing wrong with this at all, and I wouldn’t dream of criticising any of the musicians involved for taking the work, but as I sit here and listen their contribution to Manafon the music sounds the same as it does on most of Sylvian’s albums, like it lacks any purpose other than sitting behind vocals to add a sense of mood and atmosphere behind the upfront vocals. The one thing you expect from these musicians is purpose, deep, heartfelt, powerful purpose, and it isn’t there. After one listen through Manafon I just felt a real urge to go and listen to another album of John Tilbury’s playing.
Of course the argument against my words here is that this is not meant to be an album of rough and ready improv, and that I should be judged as an album of songs with a more creative use of accompanying musicians than usual. Well that is fine, but if I was to do that his review would be about five lines long. Sylvian makes no attempt to blend his singing into the music and really does just place them in front of background music. That the background music is somewhat different to usual makes this album far more interesting than 99.9% of other albums made in a similar manner, and hence I bought it and am writing about it at length here, but it still does next to nothing for me. I don’t see the point. I am more interested in Sylvian’s guitar playing and electronics on the album. If he had dropped the vocals, or had perhaps tried to add them at the time of the improvised recording sessions then the album would be of far more interest to me.
The argument has been made that the real worth of this album, because it will undoubtably sell fifty times more copies than your average improv album to a new audience, will open new ears to the music of these great musicians and so bring more people to their music. I’m not so sure this will really happen on a wide scale. I don’t think Derek Bailey saw a huge upsurge of interest after he appeared on Sylvian’s last album Blemish. The people that will buy this album will be fans of David Sylvian. I don’t think it really matters to them who he plays with. However Sylvian has clearly discovered a love of improvisation and his intentions are clearly utterly sincere, and for sure he will bring a few new listeners with him, which has got to be good for the music on some scale. This is great, but I am writing here about the music recorded on the CD, not what good it might do sales elsewhere, and ultimately this is not an album that interests me very much. Perhaps in the future Sylvian may indeed change his approach and take things a step further, but for now Manafon is a recording of great musicians playing in a vaguely strangled manner that has then had vocals laid very firmly over the top. Not my thing at all.
There is a side issue that irks me somewhat about Manafon as well, which to me underlines the gap that remains between Sylvian as ex pop star and the small improvised music world he is engaging with. Sylvian has always known how to keep his very firm fanbase happy, and has always had his music wrapped in beautiful design work by Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg. He has always had an eye for packaging and the visual presentation of his music. Its no surprise then that a collector’s edition of Manafon is available (actually it isn’t any longer, all 2000 copies priced $75 sold out through advance sales) I don’t have a problem with the addition of the deluxe version in itself, as a lover of good design I can understand the appeal of the nicely made package. What is annoying though is that an addition DVD featuring a film called Amplified Gesture was released as part of this deluxe set. The film interviews the likes of Rowe, John Butcher and Eddie Prevost, and quite frankly is for me by far the most interesting element of the entire Manafon project. The film though, could only be bought as part of the expensive edition. I find it hard to believe that the musicians involved were aware of of all of this before they made the film. It just strikes me as an ill considered move to release the film in this way. For sure CD sales are falling and finding ways of increasing revenue is essential, but I just don’t feel that improvised music could ever be comfortable with this kind of marketing approach. To make things worse, word of mouth has it that there is to be a single, cheaper DVD release of the film at a later date, though I can’t find any official statement to this end at any of Sylvian’s websites. If this is indeed the case then this makes the situation even worse in my opinion. Getting people to buy the deluxe edition by not letting them know they could later have a choice is pretty appalling if you ask me, the actions of a major label corporate and completely at odds with the ethics and ideals that drive improvised music. Oh well, I only bought the normal edition CD, which still cost twice the price I sell Cathnor releases at.