If only all so-called artists could display this courage.
Chris Jones 2009
Anyone who still harbours dreams of David Sylvian’s return to the faux-Ferry new romantic stylings of yore, leave the room, now. Describing a career arc that’s elegantly swooped through coffee table ambience towards a “devotion to creative discipline”, he now inhabits (like Scott Walker) that most rarefied of zones where artistic credibility eschews commercialism in any form. Ironically, the result of such a determinedly stoic path meant that 2005’s Nine Horses project seemed almost disappointingly mainstream. Manafon is, by no means, such an easy listen.
Almost constructing music in reverse, his last major solo release, Blemish (2003), was stripped bare of just about everything except Sylvian’s voice and the late Derek Bailey’s rattling guitar strings. Only when Sylvian turned the work over to the remixers on The Good Son Vs The Only Daughter did anything really resembling songs emerge.
Superficially this is the same minimal fare. Manafon ploughs a confrontational furrow. Sylvian’s current modus operandi begins with him capturing his voice, bravely naked and unadorned except by pitch-shifted harmonising. He then invites collaborators across the globe to add layers of meaning.
Here the sparse chittering of Bailey is replaced with a richer cast of notables, including the free jazz of Evan Parker’s saxophone, John Tilbury’s questioning piano, Werner Dafeldecker’s earthy double bass and the dusty, ambient scratch of Otomo Yoshihide’s turntables. And as if this cast didn’t suitably underline Sylvian’s place as pop star reborn as cutting-edge experimentalist, he replaces the angular prod of Bailey’s guitar with AMM legend Keith Rowe, as well as Blemish’s other notable player, Christian Fennesz.
Close listening reveals more intricacy, intimating a stronger ensemble vibe while still leaving the door ajar for chance and accident. And while, lyrically, it still relies on a third-person recital of loss and denial, Sylvian does manage to pack some humour and self-effacement into the narrative.
Above all, the album’s autobiographical bent describes a man who may seem wilfully puritanical and harsh, but whose methods yield immense beauty for the listener. The title track – based on the village where the poet RS Thomas lived – is an analogy for a figure with whom Sylvian indentifies when he describes him as “an insufferable individual” who is “upholding morals and values that even he struggles with when it comes to believing in their efficacy”.
Manafon is a brave, disconcerting and terrible document. If only all so-called artists could display such courage.