Scott Walker and Mike Patton aside, was there ever a Top of the Pops regular as thrillingly un-pop as David Sylvian? Even the fact he ended up there seems almost accidental; after all, when Japan emerged at the height of punk, they were all high art and preposterous glamour – a kind of Proxy Music, if you will, with the erstwhile Mr Batt as their Ferry-cum-Bowie – and if New Romantic hadn't happened they'd've been little more than a cultish footnote.
Not, mind you, that that would've stopped Sylvian ploughing the furrow spotlit by this retrospective, since him claiming to be captain commerciality would've been spurious at best. Take the opener here, Japan's ostensible swansong and zenith Ghosts: even in the eclectic landscape of 1982, its melancholic miasma, arcane synthalia and otherly distress calls made it a striking top five hit, while heard again here it might as well be from another universe to anything that's passed for pop in years. Indeed, as CD one here illustrates magnificently, he'd enjoy continued popular success with numerous aloof, oblique records that skipped unsettlingly between several overlapping melodies, the lachrymosely filmic Forbidden Colours being the most celebrated, with the puzzling Red Guitar remaining a standout.
In fact, it was only when he actually did start borrowing from the zeitgeist, all none-more-80s sax and Pino Palladino-style basslines, that he began to suffer, leading to the genuinely futurist and liberatingly atonal Pop Song, after which cavalierness sets thoroughly in, as dramatically showcased on the second disc, where we get toes dipped in improv waters, the deliciously unwieldy glory of The Banality of Evil, the 10-years-early invention of James Blake (hello, A Fire in the Forest!) and his adieu to top 40 life I Surrender, which is a nine-minute slice of Sade-ian sophisti-pop with separate flute and trumpet solos taken from the album Dead Bees on a Cake. It would be, wouldn't it?
Yes, it's a ridiculous, sometimes patchy affair, but that feels entirely apposite. After all, this is Exhibits A through Z and beyond in the case for Sylvian as practically the male Kate Bush, and, amid the rampant self-satisfaction evidenced by the BRIT Awards, it's a timely reminder that, at its best, the mainstream's been able to accommodate many kinds of magic.
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