As the first crisp days of autumn draw ever nearer, my thoughts drift to David Sylvian’s melancholy “September”, which perfectly captures that moment when leaves start turning brown and your thoughts are tinged with a slight sense of regret, “We say that we're in love/While secretly wishing for rain/Sipping coke and playing games/September's here again”. This song is the shortest of ballads, barely a minute long, but the haunting piano and Sylvian’s poignant lyrics portray the mood of encroaching autumn quite beautifully.
“September” is the opening track of 1987’s “Secrets of the Beehive”, which for most critics remains David Sylvian’s best album. It’s certainly the one where his songwriting skills are most to the fore and is far more accessible than much of his work like the experimental doodlings of “Alchemy” and the muted ambience of “Gone to Earth”. Although “Brilliant Trees” is arguably more accessible, “Secrets” is Sylvian’s most cohesive record where his vision is most fully realized, though still nothing like as straightforward as the pop music he became famous for when fronting Japan, one of the more sophisticated New Romantic bands of the early 80s.
"Who's a pretty boy then?"
Japan’s mix of electronics and androgyny was absolutely right for the time and a string of hit singles ensued like “Quiet Life” and “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”. Lead singer David Sylvian had a striking appearance: a waif in Mao fatigues, styled bottle-blonde hair and a face slapped in foundation, he looked every inch a star and was dubbed “the most beautiful man in the world”. Younger bands like Duran Duran looked up to them, but Sylvian was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the artifice, the flouncy outfits and the make up that, er, made up Japan. Instead, he wanted to open up his material to a greater emotional intensity and vulnerability, leading to “Ghosts”, a searching and suggestive single where spare rhythms and fleeting electronic sounds provided a creepy background to Sylvian’s smoldering vocals. Although this was their biggest hit, it sounded the death knell for Japan, acting as a signpost to Sylvian’s solo career.
Compared to the nervous, distant figure he cut with Japan, Sylvian has appeared a great deal more relaxed, though decidedly idiosyncratic, since he left the protection of the group. Although his contemplative music is unlikely to fill a dance floor, Sylvian has become the master of conjuring a mood and atmosphere that is so memorably evocative it paints pictures that linger long after the music has faded.
"Power in the Darkness"
In this way, “Secrets of the Beehive” is all about mood, where Sylvian’s music creates an unforgettable atmosphere of melancholy and longing. The overall ambience is quiet, sensual and dimly lit with the fragile music often off-set by disconsolate lyrics, such as when the metronomic pulse in “The Devil’s Own” perfectly matches the despondent verse, “The ticking of the clock/Inexorably goes on”. This is dark, brooding stuff, but not as downbeat as the near total despair described in “Waterfront”, which is a suitably forlorn end to the album: “On the waterfront the rain/Is pouring in my heart/Here the memories come in waves/Raking in the lost and found of years/And though I'd like to laugh/At all the things that led me on/Somehow the stigma still remains”.
The music feels heavily influenced by the East, which is hardly surprising after Japan’s earlier flirtation with the Orient (“Visions of China”, “Cantonese Boy”), but is obviously given an additional emphasis here by the contributions from long-time collaborator Riyuchi Sakamoto. I first heard this album when I was coincidentally reading Timothy Mo’s “An Insular Possession”, about the foundation of Hong Kong, so the Eastern influences were even further accentuated for me, as Sylvian elaborated on the atmospherics and pushed the rhythmic element further back.
"When Smokey sings"
The minimalist arrangements are timeless, stripping songs down to the bare essentials, but making judicious use of chiming guitars, swirling strings and delicate piano to bring them to life and give each song a unique quality. Slow and soothing, the music reveals itself gradually, weaving a nebulous world, subtly nuanced by the meticulous musicianship. Sylvian allows his associates to colour and shape his work without letting his own voice be overwhelmed. In “Orpheus”, there’s an astonishing moment when you think that the track has ended as the strings and synth effects steadily fade away until impeccably judged piano gently rolls back in to re-launch the song. The album features many moments with this kind of space and poise.
There’s a story being told here in a series of beautiful vignettes that add layers and richness to the whole. Each song wanders between hope and despair, the twin pillars of our existence, resulting in an album varied in texture, but unified in mood. It’s like poetry set to music – and not just any poetry, but the sensitive, bookish, romantic kind. Every word is carefully chosen, heartfelt yet insightful, such as, “Sunlight falls, my wings open wide/There's a beauty here I cannot deny” in the Cocteau-inspired “Orpheus”. It may be poetic, but it’s never whimsical, so “Mother and Child” retains a dark message: “Secret signs/Brought the crime/Right to your door/An innocent/Guilty as hell”.
"Big in Japan"
The breathtaking lyrics render just enough detail to invite you into the singer’s world, but leave you enough space to fill with your own dreams and memories. The words have an intellectual feel with much depth and complexity, but Sylvian delivers them with such stark honesty that the emotional impact is never lessened. His work in the 80s was characterised by themes of detachment and grandeur, but paradoxically was also deeply personal. Somehow he mastered the ability to write about everyday issues while appearing ethereal and other-worldly.
This is greatly helped by his distinctive, mesmerizing voice. His aching, brooding baritone is one moment soaringly powerful, the next gossamer delicate, as he half sings, half whispers the lyrics. Although Julie Burchill once memorably dismissed Sylvian as a “man with a belly ache, so we all have to hear about it”, for me his singing is a thing of beauty, cool and expressive. Reminiscent of Scott Walker’s voice with Bryan Ferry’s phrasing, Sylvian never sounded better than on this record. Rich and beguiling, even on the almost funereal “Maria”, which has echoes of “Ghosts” with its eerie sounds and haunting backdrop, he rasps, “Maria, your every thought's my heartbeat/Maria, save a thought for me”.
"Full of Eastern promise"
There is a strong cinematic quality to much of Sylvain’s music with its variety of musical textures, most obviously heard/seen in “Forbidden Colours”, the bonus track that was also the theme tune for the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”, brilliantly depicting the clashes between different cultures and the underlying homoerotic tension between the Japanese captain and British prisoner of war: “I'll go walking in circles/While doubting the very ground beneath me/Trying to show unquestioning faith in everything”. However, all the songs are highly visual, so when listening to “Let the Happiness In” I guarantee that the dreamy foghorn brass will make you think of docks and gulls even before the lyrics mention them.
Harrowing and menacing are two adjectives rarely applied to David Sylvian, but this album features a couple of unsettling tracks. “When Poets Dreamed of Angels” recounts a chilling tale of domestic violence, “She rises early from bed/Runs to the mirror/The bruises inflicted in moments of fury/He kneels beside her once more/Whispers a promise/Next time I'll break every bone in your body". The jaunty Spanish-influenced music of “The Boy with the Gun” belies the isolationist, thought provoking image of the lonely soul with violent tendencies (serial killer? mercenary?): “He carves out the victim's names/In the wooden butt of the gun/ He leans well back against the tree/He knows his Kingdom's come/He'll breath a sigh self satisfied/The work is in good hands/He shoots the coins into the air/And follows where the money lands”.
"Where's your Red Guitar?"
Despite being largely a downbeat affair, this album is about more than just gloom and despair. The music itself possesses a quiet, determined strength, while intense shafts of redemptive sunlight occasionally punctuate the darkness, such as “Orpheus” expressing hope and longing: “Tell me, I've still a lot to learn/Understand, these fires never stop/Believe me, when this joke is tired of laughing/I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing”. Even when the music is at its saddest, there is a sense that Sylvian is describing a journey through lonely days, hoping to “Let the Happiness In” and move on to better times: “Listen to the waves against the rocks/I don't know where they've been/I'm waiting for the agony to stop/Oh, let the happiness in”.
“Secrets of the Beehive” is a record of stunning beauty. It takes you to a very special place, admittedly not full of laughter and light, but a place where you feel comforted by the rich embrace of David Sylvian’s voice – like a glass of particularly exquisite cognac. His music might not invite easy access, but this album is the perfect introduction to an exceptional talent. Go on, treat yourself.