It’s very easy to look at David Sylvian’s career in a completely linear way, to think that he simply went from new romantic pop star to avant-pop savant to experimental music artist in distinct stages. But, despite being set out in very chronological order, A Victim Of Stars puts the lie to that notion most emphatically.
Consider ‘Ghosts’, the only track by Sylvian’s seminal synth-pop band Japan on this compilation, and the first on the track list. ‘Ghosts’ was Japan’s biggest hit, and effectively the song that elevated them, and Sylvian in particular, onto the highest echelons of pop stardom. And yet it must surely go down as one of the most peculiar top five hits ever: ponderously slow, with burbles of near-atonal synth offset against minimalist xylophone flourishes and Sylvian’s Bryan Ferry-esque croon. ‘Ghosts’ is a masterpiece of understated-yet-exploratory pop, and its inclusion here clearly indicates that this most commercially successful point in the Lambeth-born singer’s career was already signposting the idiosyncratic path he would so doggedly follow.
If anything, A Victim Of Stars is best played on shuffle, as it allows you to absorb Sylvian’s acute vision without the distraction of trying to place each track in some sort of artificial context. As such, tracks like ‘The Banality of Evil’ and ‘Wonderful World’, both taken from the Snow Borne Sorrow album Sylvian recorded as Nine Horses with his drummer brother (and most frequent collaborator) Steve Jansen and German artist Burnt Friedman, sound remarkably similar to the tracks taken from his first solo album, Brilliant Trees, released in 1984. These songs are sensual, exquisitely produced and elegant – slow-paced ruminations on modern life channelled through the eyes of a post-modern dandy. In twenty years, the idea of the disillusioned, be-suited dandy may have evolved, and so there are differences between ‘Red Guitar’ or ‘Pulling Punches’ and the Nine Horses tracks, but still Sylvian manages at every turn to encapsulate the despondent energy of our times.
This may indeed be his greatest strength. I once read an article that described Sylvian’s lyrics as “oblique”. Certainly, if you consider early-80s material like ‘Red Guitar’, or more recent pieces such as ‘The Only Daughter’ or ‘Manafon’, you may at times be baffled or confused by his words. They paint abstract colours, scattered around the music, like the impulsive canvases of Jackson Pollock. Yet, at their core, David Sylvian’s lyrics reflect his voice: they are sad, reflective and mournful, from the heart-rending melancholia of ‘Waterfront’ (“On the waterfront the rain / is pouring in my heart”) and ‘Let The Happiness In’ (“I’m longing for the agony to stop / Let the happiness in”), from his 1987 masterpiece Secrets Of The Beehive, to emotional pop like ‘Heartbeat’ and Blemish‘s understated ‘A Fire In The Forest’. You can ponder over every intricate lyrical detail of this compilation but, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself coming back to the stark beauty of, say, ‘Darkest Dreaming’, a simple, near-ambient ballad featuring mournful, sparse synth lines and lyrics like “I don’t ever want to be alone / with all my darkest dreaming”. With his luxurious voice, Sylvian imbues those lines with such pathos that you find your own heart breaking. And tracks like ‘Darkest Dreaming’ echo back to ‘Ghosts’, with its immortal semi-chorus: “Just when I think I’m winning / When I’ve broken every door / The ghosts of my life grow wilder than before”. For all his intellect and adventure, Sylvian’s lyrics rest in a context of despondent melancholia and profound alienation. Throughout A Victim Of Stars, I was left with a sense that I was being embraced by a man who knew my every doubt and sadness. David Sylvian has that power.
His reach goes beyond the personal, however, and what also jumps out of the lyrics on many of the tracks on A Victim Of Stars is the vivid language he uses to create a mind’s-eye vision of landscape and places. Japan, obviously through their name, but also due to their poised, minimalist aesthetic and the China-focused subject matter of their final album, Tin Drum, were intrinsically linked to the Far East; and Sylvian would return to those geographical contexts as a solo artist, notably through his collaborations with former Yellow Magic Orchestra leader Ryuichi Sakamoto, with the fruits of their entwined sensitivities featuring early on disc one in the form of ‘Bamboo Music’, ‘Bamboo Houses’, ‘Heartbeat’ and the elegiac ‘Forbidden Colours’. The tracks from Brilliant Trees also feel imbued with Asian aesthetics, notably the very Japan-esque slab of pop-funk ‘Pulling Punches’.
Meanwhile, Rob Young, in his excellent book Electric Eden drew a line between Sylvian and preceding purveyors of a very British pastoralism such as composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, or psych-folk bands like The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. ‘Taking the Veil’ and ‘Silver Moon’, from his 1985 opus Gone to Earth are dominated by elegant acoustic and electric guitar melodies that place Sylvian’s reliance on synthetic instruments alongside an earthy and pastoral vibe. The former conveys a sense of ancient matrimonial ritual, while the latter is traversed by naturalistic imagery. ‘Orpheus’, taken from Secrets of the Beehive, demonstrates a fascination with arcane religions, and how they reflect in modern-day visions of social detachment. More recent tracks, such as ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘The Banality of Evil’, have distinct political undertones, perhaps bringing Sylvian closer to protest singers such as Ewan MacColl than might at first seem apparent. Of course, with his crisp suits, exquisite hair and make-up, Sylvian also looked very much the Wildean English gentleman to boot.
Both Gone to Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive also saw Sylvian stretching even further out than he had with Japan, flirting with jazz and minimal composition, and this desire to experiment would continue throughout his career, notably when working with Can bassist Holger Czukay and King Crimson’s pioneering guitarist Robert Fripp. By the time we get to the tracks from his two most recent solo albums, Blemish and Manafon, his take on music has one foot firmly in the avant-garde. Bringing in figures like Derek Bailey, Fennesz, Burkhard Stangl, Otomo Yoshihide, John Tilbury and Sachiko M, he toyed with improvisation and deliberate atonality. If his music had always been on the outside of mainstream pop, these two albums took things much further: unlike many other artists of his generation, David Sylvian is unafraid to keep pushing, to keep looking inwards (his lyrics on ‘Snow White In Appalachia’ may be his best ever, a dark, moody tale of morbid tragedy that could have acted as soundtrack to Winter’s Bone – a sign Sylvian’s folk side extends beyond the confines of Britain’s shores) and to keep expanding the range of what his music covers. For all the constants in this compilation, it above all shows an artist that is constantly evolving, despite the immediate familiarity of that aforementioned croon.
As with any compilation, the choices on A Victim Of Stars will divide. No ‘Wave’, ‘World Citizen’ or ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’? Shocking! But as a portrait of a great artist who has never stopped progressing and carving a niche that is equal parts challenging, enjoyable and moving, it does a brilliant job. As I say, I just keep coming back to ‘Darkest Dreaming’, a track I’d not heard before. And it’s exquisite. Here’s to the next twenty years of David Sylvian.