Ode to the Fermata of the Welsh Condition: David Sylvian’s Manafon

David Sylvian Manafon

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.

Random Acts of Senseless Violence – David Sylvian

Manafon – David Sylvian


5 Responses to “Ode to the Fermata of the Welsh Condition: David Sylvian’s Manafon”

  1. 1 jc
    November 8, 2009 at 5:28 am

    why wont someone in music publishing give you a job?

    I’m not that fond of these bits of music, but I love how you’ve described them.

  2. 2 jc
    November 8, 2009 at 5:29 am

    sorry…. I of course meant to say music magazine publishing as opposed to demanding you get a deal to compose music and lyrics!!

  3. 3 John R Cornwall
    November 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Your critique of Manafon was, in my estimation anyway, the closest to the actual pieces I have read to date. Like yourself I was an ardent Japan fan and although their catalogue carried some pretty decent songs it was only with David Sylvian setting off on his own that the real music began to happen. And you are right about the silence s in Manafon; they become instrumental and are as important as what is, audibly, there. The one favours the other. In many ways ther whole collection reads like one protracted suicide note, a letting go of all things vital and intense. The lyrics are not taken directly or obviously from the poetry itself. They become congealed as it were in order to form a coherent piece of sanity, something sadly missing in the bad fortunes of Sylvia Plath’s work and life. David re-invents the poetry strictly on his own terms and the one consistency is his rich and doleful voice. A treasure to hear and thinnk about.


  4. November 10, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I have to say that your impressions on Sylvian’s Manafon seem to fully embrace the most important aspects of the work. Like his earlier Blemish, Manafon is released to the listener with a raw, emotional depth that is rare and especially so from an artist who’s career has been very well guarded. I believe this may also be the zenith of Sylvian’s lyrical work.

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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave


So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun


Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head


Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away


Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners


Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away


You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender


I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding


You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black


Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side


Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb


Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape


Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah


And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning


My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it


Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love


We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's


Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south


Running on


As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different


LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell


Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are


You must let her go

She's not crying



Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times



Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone


Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't


So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need


The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest


Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know


No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more


All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids


Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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