The Sublime David Sylvian - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Sublime David Sylvian

The Sublime David Sylvian

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because if anyone could have overcome being handsome and talented with this much panache, then there’s hope for the rest of us handsome and talented folk. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

There’s always something slightly amusing about earnest attempts to be taken seriously. 

Madonna in the Swept Away remake comes to mind. Or Leonardo DiCaprio in just about everything. The drive that pretty people have to get us to forget how pretty they are is so effortful it almost overshadows the work. 

David Sylvian had a face that fooled us, for a lot more than a second.

Until suddenly it doesn’t, and you’re looking back at a career full of such stunning genius you feel ashamed that you let the pretty face fool you. Even for a second. 

David Sylvian had a face that fooled us, for a lot more than a second. Back in 1978 when he and his band Japan hit with Adolescent Sex (see? It wasn’t all our fault), there was no way on Earth you’d have guessed that 50-some odd releases and over 30 extremely-odd collaborations later, we’d still be looking back and wondering how he did it. But that’s because of all of the makeup, the chiffon-y clothing and the teased hair. A look that got Japan lumped in with New Romantics and probably hastened their demise in 1981. Well, it was either that or him taking up with his bass player’s ex.

David on purple background photographed from bicep upward

Source Getty

But Sylvian signed to Virgin and found them willing to entertain his solo aspirations, so he joined up with the great Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and turned out at least one of his life changing records, Brilliant Trees . Which also featured the equally impressive Holger Czukay from the band Can. Trying to keep these straight if you’re not a music head might be tough, but if you remember nothing else, remember Brilliant Trees . Or better yet, the one that changed our lives in the way that great art can: by getting you to think about life well beyond its previously understood boundaries.

Secrets of the Beehive is the one that I gave you,” says vocalist (and collaborator with everybody from Bill Laswell and Vernon Reid to Fred Frith) Percy Howard, whose Meridiem project is noteworthy in its own right. “It’s an easy record to get obsessed with.”

That it is. Few albums feature a voice with such sparse instrumentation that can pick its way through a minefield of modern problems without the lyrics turning mawkish – it’s done through an unmistakable earnestness, to the nth degree.

The 1987 masterpiece, Secrets , would have been enough to justify resting on his laurels for the rest of forever. It’s replete with plangent turns of phrase, but moreover it did what Sylvian seemed to be striving for ever since Adolescent Sex : it was a record that could be considered on its own merits. Merits that lay well beyond haircuts, makeup and outfits.

Since then there have been lots more records, each pushing envelopes in different ways, along with tours (though the 55-year-old canceled one in 2012 for health reasons), festivals, a biography titled On the Periphery and, most recently, installation work with American Pulitzer prize-winning poet Franz Wright. And still this other thing that haunts.

Secrets of the Beehive . Man, oh man. 


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