David Sylvian, former frontman of one of my favorite bands, Japan, has proven time and again that he is an artist to keep watching and listening to. Not only does he possess one of the most captivating voices, but he has never been content to stay put in one musical genre; he’s remained fluid and interesting for the last thirty years, collaborating with numerous experimental forces like Holger Czukay and Ryuichi Sakamoto. His latest album, Manafon, is no exception. As far as I can discern, the album was largely recorded via improvisation, yet its lyrics are mainly inspired by the Welsh poet/rector, R.S. Thomas, whose North Wales parish included the village Manafon. I read in a recent interview with Sylvian that Thomas interested him because of his seemingly contradictory beliefs: staunch Christian ideals and a violent, misanthropic nationalism. In fact, Thomas supported the Welsh nationalist movement Meibion Glyndŵr, calling for a campaign to deface English-owned homes, and he once said “what is one death against the death of the whole Welsh nation?” I, myself, don’t know how contradictory those two beliefs are, especially given Christian fundamentalism and patriotism going quite hand in glove; however, Thomas still makes for an interesting, relatively dark subject for an album. What I find so fascinating about Thomas is his melancholy in the face of a supposedly loving God and his perspective on Welsh character and its seemingly soul-destroying propensity for wallowing in nostalgia. The latter “past as a prison” idea is a point I’ve heard from other Welsh artists before, and ultimately, even the Christian misanthropy could be construed as quite Welsh when looking at the history of Methodism in Wales. This strain of Protestantism appears to have taken on the dour atmosphere of the Welsh rain. At the same time, Wales is also full of a magic that is as deep as the valleys and of a lyrical, sing-song language made for music and poetry. And Sylvian’s Manafon manages to take in all of these various tendrils of Welshness and works them into an uncompromising piece of art.
Admittedly, this album (and some of Sylvian’s other work) may not be everyone’s cup of tea – it pushes so hard at the rules and boundaries of music in such an understated fashion that some may find it tedious or boring. In other words, there is no immediacy in this record. You must arch and stretch to meet it, but when you do, it seeps into your bones and nestles there like a Pre-Cambrian fossil. Recorded over the period of three years in three different cities with fifteen artists including Sylvian, there’s a meandering quality to the music. It takes its time just as you would imagine those pastoral, downtrodden characters portrayed in Thomas’s poetry do. It comes up close around you like the penetrating isolation of a parish in North Wales.
This album is easier to discuss as whole piece rather than individual tracks because I found myself so thoroughly cocooned in it, that making separations ceased to matter. Sylvian and his band of experimental artists end up sculpting a sonic structure largely out of silence; in a way, they use silence as yet one more instrument. Like the white space in graphic design and the clean lines of modern furniture, this silence makes the album starkly beautiful and quietly alive. When instruments do finally come in, a small flutter of saxophone, some splayed guitar strings, droplets of piano, all of your attention is upon them; sometimes they actually startle you from the rich silence. Sylvian’s characteristically languid vocal style, though slightly more ragged and deeper now, is enchanting, and his phrasing for this record is a mixture of accapella gospel and a poetry reading. He draws out each line meaningfully, and makes space for the twinkling, twitching music to creep up the walls like ivy. Each track tugs at you, drawing you forward in unexpected ways, and it feels like you must follow along as Sylvian finds his own unpredictable way through his words.
The lyrical content most definitely matters in Manafon, especially considering the connection to Thomas, and it is sometimes explicit in this connection (as in the final title track, which includes the characteristically Thomasonian lyric, “There’s a man down in the valley who doesn’t speak in his own tongue/He bears a grudge against the English/A tune to which his songs are sung”), and sometimes not as explicit as in a track like Emily Dickinson. However, even when the subject matter seems to veer away from the foundation of R.S. Thomas, its mood and themes remain consistent. Emily Dickinson is a perfect complement, in a sense, because of her own darkness and isolation. The opening song on Manafon, entitled Small Metal Gods, sets up that sense of isolation, perhaps as a communication of Thomas’s own emotional state when moved to the small parish. Like Dickinson, Thomas seemed rather disconnected from the people around him, only opening up in his poetry. The mystery of the artistic process is probed and extapolated in this record.
Some of my favourite lyrics are in the track Random Acts of Senseless Violence. The following lyrics unroll over nearly seven minutes:
I’ve put away my childish things
Abandoned my silence too
For the future will contain
Random acts of senseless violence
The target’s hit will be non-specific
We’ll roll the numbers play with chance
All suitable locations unplanned in advance
Someone’s back kitchen, stacked like a factory
With improvised devices, there’s bound to injuries
With improvised devices…
No phone-ins, no courtesy, no kindness
And the future will contain
Random acts of senseless violence
And it’s not just the boredom
It’s something endemic
It’s the fear of disorder
Stretched to its limits
Not only does it seem to take in Thomas’s rather militant nationalism that bordered on terrorism, but the section on improvised devices refers quite neatly back to the actual method of the song itself. I also love that the song ends with: “And the safety of numbers is just a contrivance/For the future will contain/Random acts of senseless violence/Democracy is very…/Democracy is very, very…” As Sylvian leaves the unfinished statement dangling as an ellipse, a cipher that can’t be filled adequately.
Manafon is truly bottomless. Its pregnant silences give birth to gripping anticipation, labouring as intensely and as constantly as the stalwart, seemingly defeated figures in Thomas’s poetry. Sylvian has arranged an astounding assortment of avant-garde musicians to create a music more omnipresent than God and more mortal than R.S. Thomas. A low simmer of rage and a clammy mist of ennui combine to form a focused atmosphere of anger and surrender. An ode to the fermata that is the Welsh condition.