In order to appreciate David Sylvian's new album Manafon (or to at least understand where it's coming from), one shouldn't attribute to it the labels usually attached to Sylvian, or to his co-musicians on this album. Alternative, rock, pop, free jazz, electronica: all these categories don't fit. In a recent interview, David Sylvian explained that he wanted to create music chamber. And that is exactly what Manafon is: contemporary classical chamber music.
Conceived as a sequel or a companion piece to 2003's Blemish, the album on which Sylvian broke the most radically with his pop/rock-past, Manafon is built around improvised music recorded in three sessions held in Vienna (with, among others, Christian Fennesz and the members of the contemporary classical music group Polwechsel), Tokyo and London. Sylvian then wrote and added the lyrics to the music over a span of a few hours, without doing a lot of refining or reworking - his style of improvisation, as he puts it in this interview.
The album opens with its most accessible piece, Small Metal Gods (the only track likely to get some radio airplay); but is followed immediately by The Rabbit Skinner, which is arguably the most inaccessible track on the album. On this track, as on the next, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, the discordant nature of the music is heightened by Sylvian's vocals going not with, but against, the instrumental improvisations. On other pieces this is not the case: here the vocals are woven into the instrumental tapestry and become a part of it, such as on Snow White in Appalachia or the title track - although, when vocals and instruments do come together, it feels more like a chance meeting than a deliberate one. Apart from Sylvian's voice, the one constant factor in the instrumental set-up is Christian Fennesz's guitar and his harsh-sounding, but very organic-feeling, electronic effects. These effects create a structure which holds the various pieces together in much the same way that Sylvian's voice does, by adding a very rewarding resonance to the discordant electronic or acoustic sounds of the other musicians.
Small Metal Gods is the only piece told in the first person, and thus, most likely, the most auto-biographical, featuring lines like "Small metal gods /From a casting line / From a factory in Mumbai / [...] Cheap souvenirs / You’ve abandoned me for sure / I’m dumping you, my childish things / I’m evening up the score" which leave me wondering to what degree the song is a refutation of the Hinduist/Buddhist philosophies that Sylvian has embraced over the last decade or more.
The remaining eight tracks are basically short stories or narrative poems told in the third person - something of a departure from deeply auto-biographical works such as Blemish. Although this form of lyrics was already present on some of the tracks of the Nine Horses album Snow Borne Sorrow, such as on its masterpiece, Atom and Cell, the lyrics here are less focused, more meandering and more mysterious - a consequence no doubt of the quasi-improvisational manner in which they were written. The lyrics are, much like the music, a reflection on the creative process in times of disillusionment. As Sylvian puts it in an introduction to the album, “Maybe I’m attracted to the stories of individuals who search for meaning on their own terms.” A meaning found in creativity outside the beaten paths, as illustrated in the title piece, about Welsh poet, nationalist and clergyman R.S. Thomas (Manafon being the Welsh town where Thomas was rector).
In summary, then, Manafon is what David Sylvian intended it to be, chamber music full of the discordant, atonal sounds in which some people only hear noise, and in which others find a different kind of beauty; music and lyrics who may be lost on some but end up rewarding and satisfying to others, especially those who take the time to listen and re-listen to it.
My rating: 5 out of 5.
Manafon is published by Samadhi Sound, both as a regular CD and a deluxe edition which also includes a DVD with the documentary “Amplified Gesture” (Note: the deluxe edition seems to be sold out already).
The website www.manafon.com includes interviews, track excerpts, a trailer for “Amplified Gesture” and a video for "Small Metal Gods."