DAVID SYLVIAN, Weatherbox (Virgin)
Melody Maker, 1989
In his autumn years, Freud began to wonder if there might not be more to that "sick animal", Man, than mere sexual repression. He speculated about the existence of a death instinct or "nirvana principle": a drive that seeks to return to the lowest possible point of tension, to recover the sublime inertia of life in the womb. (In fact geneticists have now discovered that all living cells are
biologically programmed to die at their appointed time).Just as the repression of the libido causes neurosis, so too the repression of the natural death instinct leads to unhealthy anxiety. For Freud, human civilisation itself is neurotic, its restless striving for achievement being a futile quest to deny death and gain immortality.
Nirvana is the Buddhist term for a state of serenity beyond desire, beyond ego-centrism. Buddhism and other forms of mysticism are the way human beings can get back in contact with the death instinct. The paradox is that its only when
you cease trying to evade the fact of your mortality, that it becomes possible to truly live in the present, to open up to the world rather than continually endeavour to leave a mark on it.
Weatherbox, Virgin's CD box set of Sylvian solo work since Japan, show that for five years he's been engaged in just such an attempt to transcend the cage of the self. Sylvian has been waiting "for the agony to stop", for the unrest of desire to subside. The opposite of nirvana is vritti, restless rhythm. Pop is the realm of vritti, of unnatural excitation and agitation, and accordingly, pop is something that Sylvian has been trying to transcend. He's
looked to kindred spirits like the ECM fraternity of musicians (and their quest for "the most beautiful sound next to silence"), Brian Eno's ambient cohorts. He's surrounded himself with some of the classiest improvisers around: guitarist David Torn, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Jon Hassell, pianist John Taylor (all ECM artists), Holger Czukay (Can), Ryuichi Sakomoto, Robert Fripp, Danny Thompson (the
bassist on John Martyn's Solid Air). These are the kind of musicians who work with people only if they choose to: their presence is a mark of respect and recognition. At the same time, Sylvian's reacted against pop's exhibitionism and his own glam icon past. Increasingly, he's displaced the focal point of his own vocal presence, vacated the premises of his music to leave just a sublime drift and waft of sound-vapour (culminating in the recent Flux and Mutability project with Czukay).
Brilliant Trees (1984) saw Sylvian still shaking off his pop past. "Pulling Punches" is a rather starched funk essay, and the jazzy "Ink In The Well" is not exactly grooviness incarnate. The contributions of the guest musicians are uniforly superb (Mark Isham's extremely Milesian interior odysseys on the trumpet, Kenny Wheeler's most stately flugelhorn) but it's only with the final stretch of the album, "Weathered Wall", "Backwaters", and the title track, that the sublime shape of things to come becomes apparent. Sylvian is "weeping for the loss of heaven", but these aching, lambent skyscapes, traversed by Hassell's woozy
trumpet and Czukay's dictaphone samples of eerie Oriental incantations, momentarily recreate that lost Eden before our astonished ears.
Alchemy (1985) comprises voice-less material originally presented to confound record company demands for a poppier Sylvian, and only released as a limited edition cassette. "Words With The Shaman" is reminiscent of the marvellous meandering second side of Byrne and Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. "The Stigma Of Childhood" is like time-lapse photography of dew forming, while "Steel Cathedrals" starts as just the faintest tingling in the
furthest reaches of the sky, as tremulous and impending as Talking Heads' "The Overload", before the entrance of a nomadic rhythm track and probing solos from the gang.
With Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive, Sylvian moved a little closer to pop's orbit. Gone To Earth (1986) has lovely moments ("Riverman") but often there's a rather uneasy fusion between the ambient backdrops and Sylvian's vocal melodies; melodies that are too elliptical to work as pop, but not quicksilver enough to filter happily through the neo-jazz settings. Secrets Of The Beehive (1987) is a much more successful rapprochement between the
unmoored spaciousness of improvisation, and the cogency of pop. Songs like "Orpheus" and "Let the Happiness In" have elegantly epic arrangements and a voluptuous melancholy that are reminescent of Scott Walker.
But the instrumental half of Gone To Earth (released on CD for the first time) is something else again: a collection of reveries each as absorbing as a first class sunset. The Eric Satie idea of simplicity and repetition is taken to its furthest limits. Each piece consists of an agonisingly poignant motif (most often, a cat's cradle of lachrymose guitar harmonics) which is repeated slowly and
with minimal inflection against washes of watercolour synth. As with all his best music, the word that springs to my mind is entropy: energy succumbing and subsiding into enchanted inertia, perfect quietude.
I'm a late convert to David Sylvian's vision. If anyone else has preconceptions to shed (I once dismissed Gone To Earth as "jet-set mysticism") then this beautiful collection provides the ideal opportunity.