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Music Review: David Sylvian – A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012

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David Sylvian first came to prominence as leader of the group Japan. Their early work was often lumped together with that of fellow Brits such as David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music. In a word, glam. By the time of their 1978 debut Adolescent Sex, Japan had developed a look and sound all their own. I discovered them in 1980, with the Gentlemen Take Polaroids album. Many of us felt that Japan had a lot in common with the Midge Ure-led version of Ultravox at the time, although I am pretty certain the group themselves hated the comparison.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids was Japan’s first album on Virgin Records, where Sylvian remained until the recent formation of his own Samadhisound label. He left Japan for a solo career in 1982, and the new A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012 compiles tracks from the past 30 years. The process of distilling three decades of music into a 31-track, double CD collection must have been a difficult one. A Victim of Stars is presented (almost) chronologically, and displays a continuous and admirable process of growth over the years.

For whatever reason, the set opens with a remix of “Ghosts,” which initially appeared on the Everything And Nothing album from 2000. What follows are three tracks he recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Bamboo Houses,” “Bamboo Music,” and his first international hit, “Forbidden Colours.” The two worked wonders together, and it is little surprise that “Forbidden Colours” became so popular.

From this point on the songs appear in chronological order, with one exception. What is striking is how strong both the music, and the voice of David Sylvian remain throughout. Besides the three Sakamoto tracks previously mentioned, the first disc contains eight more tunes hailing from the 1980s.

If there is one minor quibble, it would be with the dated synth sounds. But what are you going to do? At the time, Sylvian was definitely cutting-edge, and that is what the cutting-edge sounded like. Even the ’80s albums of someone considered as “authentic” as Bruce Springsteen suffer from this situation. To be honest, this is an aspect I kind of enjoy anyway. There is a certain retro, even campy fun in hearing those tinkly synthesizers.

Disc one concludes with another Sylvian/Sakamoto collaboration, this one from Ryuichi’s 1992 Heartbeat album. The full title of the song is “Heartbeat (Tainai Kaiki III),” with words by David Sylvian and music by Sakamoto and the great Arto Lindsay. The brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell also appears. As always when it comes to the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the atmospherics are all enveloping. This could just be wishful thinking on my part, but “Heartbeat” even seems to nod in the general direction of P.M. Dawn at times.

The second CD begins with a track from 1993, “Jean The Birdman.” This again shows the high level of musicians who chose to work with Sylvian, in this case it is Robert Fripp, from the album they recorded together titled The First Day. While Sylvian’s voice has always been its own instrument, certain influences and comparisons are unavoidable. With his earlier material, I was reminded of Bowie at times. On disc two of A Victim of Stars it is Bryan Ferry who I sometimes think of.

David’s voice has deepened, which completely suits his music. If his ’80s work proved that serious artistic statements could be made within the fashionable MTV-friendly confines of synth-pop, his music of the past 10 years or so represents a very graceful maturation. This is no back-handed compliment. It is my fervent belief that Sylvian has written some of his finest material in his later years. For me, the finest track of all came from his 1999 album Dead Bees On A Cake, and the 9:25 of “I Surrender.” It is an amazing piece of music, from what I consider to be his very best album.

The remainder of the collection spans the years 2003-2012. David Sylvian’s music over these years is some of the most interesting of his entire career. Right up there with Dead Bees On A Cake is Blemish (from 2003). Blemish is certainly his most personal recording, as “A Fire In The Forest,” “The Only Daughter,” and “Late Night Shopping” certainly attest.

While Sylvian collaborated with various musicians often over the years since leaving Japan, he finally took the plunge and worked in a full band context again in 2005 with Nine Horses. They are represented here with three outstanding cuts, “Wonderful World,” “The Banality of Evil,” and “Darkest Birds.”

The final song on A Victim of Stars is the newly recorded “Where’s Your Gravity?” It is a wonderfully evocative piece, and allows the richness of Sylvian’s voice the opportunity to fully engulf the listener to an understated and gorgeously atmospheric background. This is a perfect song to close the collection with.

A Victim of Stars: 1982-2012 is about as good a compilation as I have ever come across. David Sylvian’s music has always inspired a very deep connection with his fans. Virgin has done a tremendous job in the packaging also, with a gatefold sleeve that somehow captures the mysterious charisma of the artist. I cannot think of a better way for the uninitiated to get to know him. It also works quite well for those of us who may have lost touch with him from time to time over the years. Well done, all the way around.

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