David Sylvian made for a beautiful woman. The frontman of the new romantic and glam powerhouse that was Japan completely redefined what it meant to be androgynous. He was the ideal synthesis of discord and equivalency – beautiful when playing up his feminine features, beautiful when embracing his masculinity. The makeup, the long blonde hair, and his clothes were nothing without his voice – rich, sonorous, and entirely unexpected. Sylvian was a fucking anomaly.
I’m always disappointed that Japan never had much of a presence in the 70s and early 80s. Their debut album Adolescent Sex (’78) was fun, danceable, and sadly late to the glam party. They took post-Bowie androgyny and created this weirdly distilled high-glam, low-punk aesthetic that relied all too heavily on shock value and not on actual talent. Think New York Doll’s trash-glam meets lyricism a la Roxy Music. However, they knew their brand of shock-rock had a relatively short shelf life. In early 1982 Japan disbanded without fuss, leaving a terrific (if flawed) body of work with radically different sounds – a testament to just how quickly their music evolved. What’s more, Japan reformed under the name Rain Tree Crow in the early 1990s (sans guitarist Rob Dean), produced one strangely avant album, and vanished yet again.
After Japan disbanded Sylvian dropped his androgynous image to focus on developing his vocal style. Much of his early work relied heavily on collaborative efforts – film scores, singles, art installations, photography, etc. I find it pleasantly surprising when musicians collaborate so frequently, as it demonstrates how truly interconnected the world of popular music is. From Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, Can bassist Holger Czukay, to Robert Fripp and a stupidly large number of jazz musicians, Sylvian was anything but alone in the creative process.
His first solo album, Brilliant Trees (’84) is really fucking impressive – it shows him moving into much more ambient and jazz inspired territory. And his vocals, just two years after his last release with Japan sound unbelievably matured and developed. Yet Brilliant Trees strikes me as a cry for acceptance from a former new romantic pretty boy – which in some sense it is – the darker vocals, lack of synth, and sparse melody just scream art-rock.
As his voice changed with age, his sonic style evolved alongside. More recently, Sylvian has released some intensely avant-ambient work that serves as the perfect complement to his evocative vocal style. I’m not super into his most recent work – it was used in Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist, which, if you have seen the film should be more than enough of a description.
Sylvian is and has never been a highly publicized musician, but in some sense eluding commercial success may have been the most beneficial, albeit unintentional, factor in determining his sonic evolution. I’d find myself hard pressed to so much as suggest that Japan would have pursued such a highly experimental path had they remained together. Yet this is exactly what Sylvian did, resulting in a surprisingly diverse discography spanning five decades. Here are a few suggestions on where to begin:
- Japan – Adolescent Sex (’78)
- David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees (’84)
- Japan – Gentlemen Take Polaroids (’80)
- David Sylvian – Sleepwalkers (’10)
- David Sylvian – Secrets of The Beehive (’87)