David Sylvian ‘Samadhisound 2003-2014: Do You Know Me Now?’ (Universal/Samadhisound)

Mystery Man

“If you think you knew me then / You don’t know me now…” sings David Sylvian on his track ‘Do You Know Me Now’, that voice as richly resonant as ever. So, do we know him now?

The title – of both the song, and now this 10-disc boxset – is presented almost as a provocation, as if Sylvian is still fed up with being misunderstood, with being thought of as the moody pretty boy from those emperors of 1980s electronica, Japan. He’s long since moved on. He considers much of his youthful work juvenilia, bearing as much in common with that persona as Leonard Cohen did with Ziggy Stardust. Is this the late-career retrospective to reframe his legacy?

Essentially, there’s 20th century Sylvian, and 21st century Sylvian. Released in 1999, ‘Dead Bees On A Cake’ created lush, lovely marketable songs where the listener could immerse themselves in the seductive romance of melancholy. Since then, liberated from Virgin Records, he’s followed his muse via his own Samadhisound label into forests of experimentation in which he ignores the rigours of structure, and messes with the fabric of sound.

Offering much to digest and much to delight in, ‘Do You Know Me Now?’ gathers his work from the period Sylvian himself considers his most fruitful, and contains the entirety of his solo and collaborative output from the 11 years of the label’s existence.

From the striking and often stark ‘Blemish’ and ‘Manafon’, which at least remain in some vague form of dialogue with lyrics and melody, to the art installation ‘When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima’ and the collaboration with Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright, ‘There’s A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight’, his Samadhisound years are challenging to even his most stan-like fans. And they’re possibly incomprehensible to those retro-heads who still wish he’d just sing ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ like a good chap.

None of this is to denigrate his earlier emissions. Both Japan and the solo Sylvian, who created sublime records like ‘Brilliant Trees’ or ‘Gone To Earth’, made miraculous music. Yet that ship has sailed. One of the lodestars of peacocking synth-swooners is now a shy, retiring recluse.

‘Blemish’, from 2003, wasn’t the first time the former “most beautiful man in pop” had gone weird sonically, but it stands now as a watershed statement. In part motivated by his break-up with wife Ingrid Chavez, and recorded largely in his home studio, it’s uncompromisingly confessional. If Marvin Gaye thought his “divorce album”, ‘Here, My Dear’, was a tough listen, what’s going on here is infinitely more raw and cathartic. There is blood on these tracks.

Musically, Christian Fennesz and anti-guitarist Derek Bailey are Sylvian’s in-house spirit guides. It confirms that the Catford crooner was radically reshaping himself and his objectives in ways perhaps only Scott Walker, Mark Hollis and Björk have comparably done. Is it, as some have said, “ambient”? No, it’s too prickly, too… personal. But hope is in sight nevertheless, on the revelatory ‘How Little We Need To Be Happy’.

‘Manafon’ (2009) was fuelled by readings of Welsh poet/priest RS Thomas, and while it does mine areas of harrowing desolation, touching at times on abstract jazz and avant-garde chamber music, there are flashes of self- aware, wry humour. These occasional winks are leavening, but they don’t apologise for the general gravitas. In fact, they let it thrive. Tracks like ‘The Greatest Living Englishman’ and ‘Emily Dickinson’ are clever in all the right ways. For all its darkness, ‘Manafon’ moves like mercury, somehow finding a road to radiance.

Throughout this impressively presented boxset (the 100-page book features notes by Sylvian and artwork by Chris Bigg), there are also forays into remixes, glitching and warping of noise. It’s sometimes more crackle than pop. Variations of the Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration ‘World Citizen’ show how restless, how immune to feeling satisfied with the heft and weave of a track Sylvian can be.

The gorgeous ‘Snow Borne Sorrow’, released in 2005 as Nine Horses with his brother Steve Jansen and Bernd Friedmann (and again featuring Sakamoto), is the odd one out here, by virtue of its even temperament. With shrewd lyrics on the inner (‘Serotonin’) and outer (‘The Banality Of Evil’) worlds, and a warm, alluring atmosphere, it doesn’t deem melody and borderline trip hop grooves to be anathema. It doesn’t wilfully alienate. It’s the band that Japan, in a parallel dimension, could have been.

Since then though, the creative desire to probe and disrupt have driven Sylvian’s output. As this beguiling, expansive set yields its curiosities, do we know him any better? Of course not. He’s the enigma’s enigma. That’s part of the charm. There’s a sense, however, that in making this turbulent, asymmetrical music, he’s broken down every door and let some happiness in.

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